Whaling Debate Heats Up

— Pressure on Japan to stop hunting whales in the Antarctic is expected to mount after the International Whaling Commission said today it is no longer sure how many Minke whales still live in the region.

The IWC’s scientific committee said new research suggested the real number of minke whales in the southern hemisphere could be “appreciably lower” than the long-accepted estimate of 76,000 which has been promoted by Japan to defend its culls.

“We can’t give a number for the total population at this present time,” committee chairwoman Judy Zeh told the IWC’s annual meeting which opened in Australia today.

Japan caught more than 500 minke whales last year for what it calls scientific purposes and, with Norway, it is seeking to lift a 1986 ban on commercial whaling. Norway plans to kill 655 minkes this year under a complaint it has registered on the ban.

Earlier, Japan attacked moves by Australia to establish a South Pacific whale sanctuary, saying the plan had “no scientific justification,” but the Japanese delegation failed in a bid to ban Greenpeace environmentalists from the IWC meeting.

The Battle Continues The three-day meeting opened as an unprecedented public relations battle continued between pro-whalers — Japan, Norway and the High North Alliance group — and anti-whaling groups.

Delegates from the IWC’s 40 member nations were met on arrival by the recorded sounds of whales singing and peaceful protest vigils from both sides of the whaling divide.

Inside the forum, Japan accused Greenpeace of “illegal and violent” action during a protest against Japanese whalers at sea in the Antarctic last year, saying the protesters had risked the lives and safety of the vessel’s crew and researchers.

But its move to quash Greenpeace’s observer status failed, opposed by the United States, Britain and other key nations, with support only from Caribbean nations Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis.

“This is the strongest public support for Greenpeace’s role in campaigning for an end to the unsustainable practice of commercial whaling that we have ever seen,” Greenpeace said in a statement after the Japanese move failed.

Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said the renewed uncertainty over whale numbers should add to pressure on Japan to end its controversial whaling in Antarctica.

“Clearly it is no longer appropriate to argue that minke whales are as plentiful as ever, particularly as they face increasing threats from marine pollution, entanglement in debris and climate change,” WWF spokeswoman Cassandra Phillips said.

Double Standards? Japanese IWC commissioner Minoru Morimoto singled out Australia for criticism over its Pacific sanctuary proposal, which is to be put to a vote on Tuesday, accusing it of “double standards” given millions of kangaroos are killed each year.

“Perhaps if we renamed [minke whales] the kangaroos of the sea, the Australian public and [Environment Minister Robert Hill] would support their sustainable use,” he told the meeting.

Backed by the High North Alliance of whalers from Canada, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland and Norway, Morimoto said Australia should quit the IWC rather than try to change it role from that of a whaling regulator to a conservation body.

“This is a body to manage whaling, it is not a body to manage whale-watching,” said the Alliance’s Rune Frovik from Norway.

Hill later told reporters that lobbying would continue to try to win the required 75 percent of votes needed for the sanctuary which would complement protected areas in the Southern and Indian oceans.

He conceded it was a “difficult” task to win the necessary support, but said the IWC must, in future, reflect the “very strong anti-whaling sentiment” he sensed across the globe.

“That tug of war between those who concentrate on the commercial exploitation of whales through hunting and those who see the body’s future more akin to an international conservation body, I think, will continue for some years,” he said.

Japan however disputed Hill’s claim, saying there was growing understanding of whaling not only for it at home, but from countries like the U.S and Australia.