Japan calls off hunt for humpbacks

by Masami Ito

Even as its whalers sail for the Southern Ocean hunting grounds, Japan has agreed to temporarily suspend its pursuit of humpback whales, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura indicated Friday.

According to Machimura, the decision follows a request to Fisheries Agency officials by International Whaling Commission chairman William Hogarth to suspend humpback whaling for a year or two while the IWC undergoes reform to be able to hold constructive discussions.

“We will not change the plan to conduct whaling for scientific purposes, but the government has decided to postpone humpback whaling while (the IWC) undergoes normalization,” Machimura told a news conference.

He added that the government’s decision was not based on Australia’s announcement Wednesday that it will send planes and a fisheries patrol ship to monitor Japan’s whale hunters in the Antarctic to collect evidence for a potential legal case against Japan’s whaling program.

“I think the relationship with Australia could improve, but it depends on how (Australia) takes our decision,” Machimura said.

Machimura added that he heard of Australians giving names and nicknames to the humpback whales.

“(Australians) must think (the humpbacks) are very cute, but I am not sure I can understand that feeling,” he said.

Japan, currently vice chair of the IWC, stopped commercial whaling in 1986 in line with the IWC moratorium.

But Japan has carried out “scientific whaling,” which the IWC agreement exempts, since 1987, a practice that has drawn harsh criticism from the international community.

Last month, Japan was slammed by antiwhaling organizations and nations for sending ships to the Southern Ocean to hunt about 1,000 whales, including, for the first time in 44 years, 50 humpbacks.

“Things tend to get emotional when (talking) about the whaling issue,” Machimura said. “Japan is hoping for a calm discussion based on scientific facts.”

Machimura criticized the IWC for holding unproductive discussions based on an “antagonistic ideology.”

“For a long time, the IWC has fallen into dysfunction,” Machimura said. “It should fundamentally be a place to discuss preservation and utilization (of whales).”

Humpbacks, popular with whale-watchers, were near extinction until the IWC protection order in 1966.

The decision followed talks between Japan and the U.S. over the state of the IWC, said Hideki Moronuki, chief of the Fisheries Agency’s whaling division. The U.S. State Department had warned Japan that some antiwhaling nations could boycott IWC meetings, he said.

“That goes against the intentions of Japan, which has sought a normalized IWC,” said Moronuki, who has been an energetic and outspoken proponent of Japan’s whaling program.

The decision was cheered by antiwhaling nations — with reservations.

“While this is a welcome move, the Australian government strongly believes that there is no credible justification for the hunting of any whales,” Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, adding surveillance plans would go forward.

Information from AP added