ANCHORAGE - Japan says it does not have enough support to overturn a 21-year moratorium on commercial whaling, but environmentalists still plan to closely monitor the annual International Whaling Commission meeting that starts here Monday.
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"The scene is set for what arguably could be the most important whaling conservation meeting in the last two decades," said Patrick Ramage with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "The conservation majority is razor thin."
Pro-whaling nations at last year's sometimes contentious meeting narrowly passed a symbolic resolution in support of ending the moratorium. But the measure fell far short of the 75 percent majority necessary to lift the ban, imposed in 1986 to protect several vulnerable species. Pro-whale nations argue that whale populations have since rebounded.
The recent addition of several pro-moratorium members has shifted the makeup of the 75-member commission, so no one foresees enough votes to lift the moratorium. But conservation advocates said whale-friendly nations need to push harder for strong protection measures when the IWC formally meets Monday through Thursday in Anchorage.
"Whales face more threats today than at any other time in history, with entanglements in fishing gear, pollution of the marine environment, ship strikes with high speed vessels, intense underwater noise and the looming threat of global change," Ramage said. "The great whales are already battling for their lives and they need the U.S. and other conservation-minded governments to fight for them."
Japan contends that commercial whaling can coincide with environmental interests if done properly. The IWC needs to focus on managing the hunting of plentiful species rather than squelching a practice that has existed for thousands of years, said Joji Morishita, the alternate IWC commissioner for Japan.
"There's a misunderstanding that Japan wants free, uncontrolled whaling," he said. "It's not true. We would like to have managed, controlled whaling, with quotas and enforcement."
Japan has come under recent criticism for its plan to kill 50 humpback whales - an endangered species - this year.
"We don't see it as endangered," Morishita said.
Last year's slim pro-whaling edge followed years of Japanese efforts to boost IWC's membership with developing nations. Japan has repeatedly denied paying developing nations for pro-whaling votes as critics allege.
Even though the moratorium is expected to stand for now, anti- and pro-whaling factions said other important issues need to be addressed by the IWC.
Japan kills about 1,000 whales annually and sells the meat under a scientific program allowed by the commission, although the annual whale hunt off Antarctica was cut short in February by a ship fire that killed one crew member. The program is nothing but a loophole that defies the moratorium and it should be better scrutinized, said Joel Reynolds with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Thousands of whales are killed each year, ostensibly for research, but the overwhelming majority of whale scientists around the world consider it a fraud," he said. "Essentially it's commercial whaling in the guise of scientific research."
Morishita said Japan submits as many as 30 research reports to the IWC's scientific committee each year. But he said Japan would decrease its research activities in exchange for quotas. His country again will seek to win "community whaling" status, which would give it quotas under provisions similar to those that allow some indigenous groups - such as Alaska natives - to hunt the mammals.
Japan has tried and failed to get such quotas for more than two decades, according to Morishita.
He downplayed fears by activists that Japan will try to win concessions on the issue in exchange for its support to renew a five-year bowhead whale quota for indigenous hunters.
"We will continue to claim that our proposal is similar to their proposal and should be treated equally and fairly," he said. "But Japan will not link the two."
Other major whale-eating nations are Norway, which openly conducts commercial whaling, and Iceland, which resumed commercial whaling last October.
Those countries, like Japan, consider eating whale a long-standing tradition.
"We are the true conservationists," said Rune Frovik of pro-whaling group High North Alliance, based in Norway. "We need to conserve the whales in order to hunt them."