The head of the U.S. delegation to an upcoming meeting of the International Whaling Commission urged Japan on Wednesday to abandon its plan to expand its so-called research whaling program, indicating that Tokyo could face sanctions over the issue.

“We are surprised, very disappointed,” U.S. IWC Commissioner Rolland Schmitten said in an interview with Kyodo News. “We did not believe that there is a scientific foundation behind Japan’s current program, let alone expanded program.

“We will consider whatever we have to do to stop this program,” if Japan fails to drop its plans via negotiations, Schmitten said prior to the annual IWC meeting in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The meeting will run from April 25 to May 24.

Japan announced plans in March to include the sei whale, an endangered species, in its catch targets and to start an annual coastal catch of 50 minke whales as part of its research program.

Schmitten said that Japan, which had sought the resumption of coastal whaling over the past 13 years at the IWC as a policy issue, dealt suddenly with the matter by incorporating it into its so-called science program.

“That is very confusing to the United States and it’s a reason we feel there is no scientific basis,” he said.

Schmitten said the sei whale has been given special protection by the IWC. Uncertainty still shrouds the actual population numbers of the creature, which primarily feeds on plankton, he said.

Japan gave up commercial whaling in 1986 in compliance with an international moratorium, and it turned to “research whaling” the following year.

It justifies the program by citing a need to assess the effects of fish consumption by whales on marine resources.

Conservationists describe Japan’s research as a cover for commercial whaling, noting that the meat is sold for consumption in Japan.

Schmitten said the U.S. will support planned sanctuary bids by New Zealand and Australia at the IWC meeting. Both countries are expected to propose that almost all of the South Pacific be made a whale sanctuary.

“We have been consistent in our support of sanctuaries,” he said.

Schmitten added it will be difficult for the upcoming IWC meeting to result in an accord over a new science-based system to monitor whales on an international basis.

Japan is seeking an early introduction of the system, known as the Revised Management Scheme, to pave the way for a resumption of commercial whaling, but it is opposed by antiwhaling countries.

Bush told to stand firm

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) Leading environmental conservation groups on Wednesday urged U.S. President George W. Bush to stand firm against the prowhaling stances of Japan and Norway and their whale meat trade.

In an advertisement in Wednesday’s edition of The Washington Post, seven environmental groups called on Bush to use the “asset (of) U.S. leadership, including immediate diplomatic pressure, in opposing further commercial and so-called ‘scientific research,’ before the International Whaling Commission meets later this month in Shimonoseki.”

The entreaty was featured in an advertisement titled “Mr. President: Americans support your stand against whaling!”

The advertisement continues: “No other world leader can halt this renewed threat to some of the world’s most endangered marine mammals.”

The sponsoring groups are: the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for International Environmental Law and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

In March, Japan announced plans to begin importing whale meat from Norway and also voiced its intention to expand its research whaling program to include sei, an endangered species, in its catch target.

In a related move Wednesday, the IFAW said Japan created “an international furor” last week when its fleet returned with 440 minke whales caught in the Antarctic Sea. Tokyo then launched a campaign titled “Save Them, Eat Them!” to promote whale meat consumption among the country’s youth.

“Japan’s whale hunting and eating campaign has reached a new level of audacity,” IFAW President Fred O’Regan said in a statement.

“The disregard for international treaties, world opinion and conservation must be met with strong action. Now is President Bush’s time to make his mark as a world leader in the international environmental arena.”

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