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ANCHORAGE - A sometimes contentious debate on whether four small Japanese coastal communities should be allowed to hunt minke whales is scheduled to be decided Thursday by the International Whaling Commission.
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The discussion consumed much of the morning agenda Wednesday at the annual meeting of the 77-nation commission.
Commission chairman Bill Hogarth of the United States said it was clear there was no consensus. He agreed to Japan's request to keep the matter open and determine its fate on Thursday, the final day of the meeting held in Anchorage this year.
Japan had argued the four communities should be allowed to hunt whales because their tradition is so old that it qualifies as subsistence hunting.
"They have been living on this tradition for hundreds of years, it is part of their lives," said Joji Morishita, the alternate IWC commissioner for Japan.
The proposal was heard a day after the IWC allowed Alaska Natives to continue the subsistence hunts of bowhead whales through 2012. Critics called Japan's plan commercial whaling and said there is not enough scientific data to know if the minke stocks in the area are large enough to be sustainable hunted.
Japan for more than two decades has sought "community whaling" status, which would give it quotas similar to those allowing Alaska Natives and other indigenous groups to hunt the mammals. Japan already kills more than 1,000 minke whales a year and sells the meat under a scientific research provision allowed by the IWC, which enacted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.
Morishita said Japan was prepared to reduce the number of minkes caught in that program by the number of whales caught in a community quota program.
The proposal did not specify a quota number, he said, because Japan "is willing to negotiate a number more acceptable" to commissioners. According to the proposal, Japan would accept international observers to ensure the program would be carried out as approved.
Delegates said Japan's offer to reduce the number of so-called research kills adds fuel to their contention that the program is no more than a loophole for commercial whaling.
"This is proof that this is not a scientific program in anything but name," said Barry Gardiner with the United Kingdom delegation.
Morishita acknowledged Wednesday that if approved, some meat from the minke whales would be sold. But he noted the high price of Alaska Native crafts made with whale baleen, saying IWC members including himself had no problem with that commercial practice.
"What's wrong with commerciality?" he said. "Why do people have to see only commercial whaling as evil?"
Other nations, however, noted that the crafts are a byproduct of the subsistence hunts, not the main focus.