The Fisheries Agency will clamp down on the possession and sale of illegal whale meat by revising regulations to impose fines and prison sentences amid criticism that poached whale meat is being sold in Japan, sources said Friday.

The agency will also pave the way for the sale of meat from whales that cannot be released after becoming entangled in fixed fishing nets, the sources added.

Presently, an ordinance bans the sale of meat from whales caught in fishing nets to stop poaching.

Necessary steps for the legal changes would commence as soon as preparations are in place, they added.

While whale poaching is illegal in Japan, there is no way to check or control the origin of whale meat found on the market.

By regulating the distribution of whale meat, the agency hopes to secure greater transparency in the domestic market, according to the sources.

Domestic industry bodies such as the Japan Whaling Association welcome the move, saying it would underscore Japan’s desire to restart commercial whaling. They claim it would also make effective use of whale resources.

However, antiwhaling activists are likely to criticize the plan because some elements of the proposal, such as how to determine whether a whale in a fishing net is really too weak to be released, would be subjective, observers said.

The new ordinance envisioned by the agency targets the meat of large whales such as minke and sperm, the hunting of which is banned by the International Whaling Commission, the sources said. Japan, however, recently expanded its so-called research whaling program to include sperm and Bryde’s whales, drawing international protests and threats of U.S. sanctions.

In the future, the agency hopes to develop a framework under which illegal whale meat might be checked via regular market inspections by registering the DNA samples of individual whales.

The current ordinance, which took effect in 1990, instructs fishermen to return living whales to the sea and to bury or burn the carcasses of whales that are dead. Consumption of the meat is condoned only in areas where it has been a traditional custom, and the meat may not be sold.

But fishing industry officials have criticized the current legal framework for several reasons, including because it offers no financial compensation for fishing nets damaged by the whales and the meat cannot be consumed in such small areas.

The Fisheries Agency contemplated revising the ordinance in 1993 but backed away from the idea after facing stiff opposition from antiwhaling groups.

Agency officials said the new proposal “does not alter the basic principle of releasing live whales, and would not increase Japan’s whaling quota.”

Observers said the agency’s move appears to be an effort to stay one step ahead of international calls, especially from nonwhaling nations, to place whale meat distribution under international control.

If, as Japan hopes, the nation is to be allowed to resume commercial whaling, securing full transparency in the whale meat market is a hurdle that cannot be ignored, according to observers.

Agency sources said that DNA registration of minke whales caught under the nation’s scientific research program has already been placed in a data base and that checking for illegal meat would not be impossible once the remaining whales are also registered.

Nevertheless, activists are likely to question the agency’s plan to allow the consumption of whales entangled in fishing nets, observers say. The proposed move also comes as Japan is already attracting criticism from antiwhaling nations angered by Tokyo’s expansion of its research whaling program.

According to the agency, an average of between 20 and 30 whales are caught in fishing nets every year. While most of the meat is consumed in the area where it is caught, the rarity of the meat has led to a rise in prices, leading to the rise in illegal meat on store shelves.

U.S. told to back off

The head of the Fisheries Agency on Friday called on the United States to refrain from imposing trade sanctions on Japan over its expanded whaling, which he called justifiable under international law.

Isao Nakasu, director general of the Fisheries Agency, under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said in an address to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, “It is our basic stance to press the U.S. government for self-restraint.”

Referring to the U.S. policy of allowing indigenous people in Alaska to catch 50 bowhead whales per year, Nakasu said, “I want the U.S. to extend to other countries the kind of tolerance toward cultural differences it shows within (its borders).”

U.S. President Bill Clinton is now considering whether to impose trade sanctions on fisheries imports from Japan.

after U.S. Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta recommended Sept. 13 that Clinton issue an executive order imposing sanctions within 60 days.

Nakasu, however, stopped short of suggesting retaliatory sanctions against the U.S., saying, “We have so far said no more than that we will take actions based on international law.”

Repeating the Japanese claim that commercial whaling should be resumed under scientifically managed and sustainable quotas, Nakasu explained one of the major motives of Japan’s expanded whaling is to find what impact whales have on fishery resources.

“The reason why we added Bryde’s and sperm whales to minkes is that they are larger in biomass” than the smaller minke whale, which Japan has hunted for over a decade.

Since abandoning commercial whaling in 1987 in line with an international moratorium, which took effect in 1986, Japan has caught minke whales for what it claims are research purposes.

Under a two-year pilot program launched this year, however, it decided to hunt up to 50 Bryde’s and 10 sperm whales, as well as 100 minke whales, in the northwestern Pacific. Japanese whalers caught 43 Bryde’s, five sperm and 40 minke whales between Aug. 1 and Sept. 16.

It was the first time Japan caught Bryde’s and sperm whales since 1987. Hunting the species, protected under U.S. law, fanned international criticism of Japanese whaling.

Nakasu complained the criticism is often based on “one-sided assumptions,” while Japan “has claimed to discuss the issue matter-of-factly.”

Nakasu, who has worked for the ministry for 33 years, also cast doubts on the recent work of the International Whaling Commission, the international body in charge of whale conservation.

“Frankly speaking, its compliance with the original objective of preserving whale stocks and finding ways for their sustainable use is dubious.”

Nakasu added, however, that the government is striving to win international support for the resumption of commercial whaling under a new management regime at the IWC, instead of leaving the body as Iceland did in 1992.

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