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Incensed over Japan’s expanded whaling program, Washington has threatened Tokyo with trade sanctions in what the media have largely portrayed as a black and white issue.

But there are divergent opinions on whaling on both sides of the Pacific that are lost in the headlines and sound bites that make the issue out to be a dispute pitting Japan squarely against the United States.

Experts stress that rational debate is needed from both parties to prevent the weakening of the International Whaling Commission — the international body tasked with conserving the mammal.

Currently, six Japanese whaling boats are prowling the North Pacific. Since they set out in early August, they have harpooned some 40 minke, 43 Bryde’s and five sperm whales, according to the Fisheries Agency.

Japan has hunted minke for “research purposes” since a moratorium by the IWC prohibited commercial whaling in 1987. But this is the first time Bryde’s and sperm whales — large whales ravaged in whaling’s heyday — have been hunted, at least legally, since the moratorium took effect.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta has called Japan’s whaling “preposterous” and recommended a set of trade sanctions be levied against Tokyo, some of which were imposed last week. For Mineta and other whaling opponents, Japan’s whaling forays are an affront to efforts to preserve the mammal.

But despite the threats, the Fisheries Agency plans to continue the whaling program next year.

“Mineta says our whaling is not scientific because the meat is sold on the Japanese market. In reality, we are just following the IWC convention,” maintains Joji Morishita, in charge of whaling issues at the agency.

Under Article 8 of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, signatories are allowed to conduct scientific whaling and are obligated to process killed whales to the fullest extent possible.

Japan’s scientific whaling is aimed at better understanding whale populations, their diet and pollution levels, Morishita claimed.

Not all of its research is lethal whaling, he said, although he added that to gain information on diet, chemical pollution — concentrated in the mammal’s blubber — and age, the animal must be killed.

Japan’s new target of 10 sperm and 50 Bryde’s whales in the North Pacific, in addition to its annual catch of up to 440 minke whales, has infuriated Washington, as both Bryde’s and sperm whales are protected under U.S. law.

However, Japan’s whaling will endanger none of the three species, since the North Pacific has estimated populations of 25,000 minke, 23,000 Bryde’s and over 100,000 sperm whales, claimed longtime whaling advocate Seiji Ohsumi, head of the Institute of Cetacean Research, which carries out much of Japan’s whaling and attendant research for the government.

Like Morishita, he believes the U.S. position is an attempt to project and impose its values abroad.

The U.S. stance is a ridiculous double standard, he said, pointing out that it also is a whaling nation, as American Indians in the states of Washington and Alaska annually kill whales on a level not incomparable with Japan. While the annual number caught is far less, the whales caught in the U.S. are far larger than those caught by the Japanese.

The IWC permits Alaska Eskimos to take an average of around 50 bowhead whales per year, and the Makah Tribe in Washington state an average of four per year for aboriginal subsistence purposes.

“The U.S., as a superpower, with its military and power politics, forces countries to permit it to whale,” Ohsumi said. “But no matter how much Japan scientifically demonstrates the legitimacy of whaling, it is not allowed to whale. It is a complete double standard.”

According to Tom Mexsis Happynook, chairman of the Canada-based World Council of Whalers, “The U.S. has never stopped being a whaling nation, yet they grandstand on the international stage as a nation that strongly opposes whaling in any form.

“A sampling of 10 sperm whales out of a population of 100,000 in the Northwestern Pacific is nothing compared to the U.S. whaling (in Alaska) of 40 to 50 bowhead whales from an internationally classified endangered species with a population of 8,000 animals,” he added.

Meanwhile, wildlife protection and animal rights groups contend that Japan’s “scientific whaling” is a transparent ruse and an unnecessary relic of Japanese culture.

“There is no need to carry out surveys. Whale is not a necessary component of the Japanese diet,” contends Nanami Kurasawa of the Tokyo-based Dolphin and Whale Action Network.

Kurasawa and other Japanese whaling opponents, such as Naoko Funahashi, Japan representative for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, have several points of contention with the government’s program.

There is still much people do not know about whales, Funahashi argued, noting that the IWC has said the number of minkes may be “appreciably lower” than the best estimates and that more accurate data is needed.

“Just because a species’ population is not endangered doesn’t mean we have to kill them,” Funahashi said.

Once they are depleted, it is hard for them to come back, she said. “It happened before, and could happen again. Whales weren’t endangered until people started whaling.”

Richard Mott, vice president of the World Wildlife Fund of Washington D.C., accuses Japan of “grossly perverting” the exemption for scientific surveys as a cover to keep its commercial fleet operating.” If Japan cared to, it could negotiate whaling of minke in its own waters with the IWC, “But Japan has set its sights on bigger things, and it seems fully prepared to destroy the IWC to get it,” Mott said. “Japan wants to revive large-scale commercial whaling and resume international trade in whale meat.”

C.W. Nicol, a naturalized Japanese who has taken part in research whaling missions while working in Canada, straddles the fence.

Nicol said Japan may have been slammed unfairly at times, but added he is skeptical of the need for research on the whales’ diet, noting similar research has been going on for decades.

“They really are doing research, but is it really necessary? If preserving the (whaling) industry is what it’s about, why not be more honest about it?” Nicol said.

“I personally would like to see Japan say ‘We will decide what we will take in our own waters’ and stop hunting in distant waters.”

Shigeki Komori, conservation officer for WWF Japan, warns that the heated, politically charged debate could overshadow another serious concern — that the power of the IWC is being undermined.

“I worry that the most endangered thing here is the IWC,” he said. “The standoff between whaling advocates and opponents is significantly damaging (its) authority.”

In the long run, this could harm both Japan and the U.S., and, more importantly, the survival chances of whales, Komori said.

He expressed fear that without the international conservation group, countries would likely return to the seas armed with harpoons.

“Japan’s scientific whaling and use of the meat is legal (under the IWC convention). But it is a fact that the country is ignoring the annual (IWC nonbinding) resolution to rethink its whaling and ignoring the sentiments of antiwhaling countries and groups.”

What is crucial now is calm, rational debate, Komori urged, so that the world can deal with more serious environmental issues, such as the threat of global warming.

In fact, the stances of both sides are clearly outlined in the IWC accord, which is “a convention to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.”

Clearly the U.S. and Japan come down on different sides of the treaty. Washington is prone to emphasize “conservation,” while Tokyo tends toward “orderly development of the whaling industry.”

If the two nations shred the IWC’s mandate with their ego clash, whales could quite likely be the long-term losers.

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