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SHIMONOSEKI, Japan - Whaling officials today rejected a U.S. request to allow Alaska Eskimos to hunt whales, threatening a tradition dating back thousands of years that still feeds many Eskimos.
The decision at the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting here angered American delegates and was widely seen as payback for U.S. opposition to Japanese-led efforts to lift a 1986 ban on commercial whaling.
The United States had asked the commission to renew a quota allowing the Eskimos to hunt 55 bowhead whales over five years.
But the request received 32 votes in favor and 11 opposed today, the final day of the meeting, short of the three-fourths majority of the IWC's 48 members needed to pass. The proposal was also rejected by delegates on Thursday, and the amended version was resubmitted today.
Before this week's votes, aboriginal hunting quotas had never been denied since the body began ruling on the issue in the early 1970s.
"In the history of the IWC, it was the most unjust, unkind and unfair vote that was ever taken," said Rolland Schmitten, the head of the U.S. delegation. "That vote literally denied people to feed their families."
George Ahmaogak, whose Inupiat people on Alaska's Arctic Coast were included in the quotas, said the 7,500 Inupiats in Alaska have depended on the whale hunts for millennia
"This vote was very disappointing. It's an unfortunate day for us," Ahmaogak said. "Whale provides a lot of nutritional needs for our people, and once we lose that we're in bad shape."
The hunts have been going on for 8,000 years, and no part of the whale is wasted. The stomach and bladder are used for drums, the bones for artwork, and all parts of the whale, including tongue and other organs, are eaten.
Eskimos would lose a big food source without the whale hunts, but they would not go hungry. There are food stores and markets in their villages.
A similar measure allowing the United States' Makah Indians to hunt four gray whales annually, rejected by the IWC on Thursday, was approved today in a fresh ballot. Russia's request for 120 gray whales annually for its indigenous Chukotka people was voted down.
Japan had blasted the U.S. request as hypocritical. It said that if such kills are approved, Japan should be granted the right to coastal whaling.
The United States, Britain and other nations opposed lifting the IWC's commercial whaling ban, and on Thursday they helped defeat a motion to end the ban, angering Japan and other pro-whaling countries.
The quota for the Eskimos has been at the center of a disagreement between nations for and against whaling that has raised concerns about a deadlock at the IWC annual meeting in this former Japanese whaling hub.
In closed-door talks late Thursday, the United States and Japan seemed close to a compromise after the initial rejection of the proposal. U.S. delegates also appeared to have swayed other nations initially opposed to the quotas.
But when the new aboriginal quotas request went to a vote today, Japan, Mongolia and several Caribbean nations again voted against it.
Today the United States and Russia resubmitted the requests under two separate proposals. The one on Makah whaling rights was approved. The other, which would have reduced the Inupiat Eskimos' haul by one bowhead whale and renewed the Russian Chukotka quota, was voted down.
Japanese officials opposed the requests after Japan was denied the right Tuesday to let four coastal whaling towns catch a total of 50 minke whales from nearby waters.
American officials say aboriginal whaling differs from Japan's coastal whaling because there is no commercial benefit.
Andres Rozental, head of the Mexican delegation, lashed out at nations that voted against the quotas, saying the vote "had absolutely nothing do with the purpose and origins of aboriginal whaling and everything to do with politics."