• Kyodo

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The International Whaling Commission opened its annual meeting Thursday in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, with a fierce tug-of-war expected over Japan’s plan to expand its “research whaling” and seek resumption of commercial whaling.

The 54th meeting of the 42-member IWC began in the Kaikyo Messe Shimonoseki convention center with a closed-door Science Committee session focusing on science and data.

But stormy debate is expected as Japan aims first to win the committee’s support of its research-whaling program, including a new plan to catch sei whales, which the IWC wants protected, in the Northwest Pacific.

The key issue will be how scientists from the 42 member countries assess Japan’s claim that there are 28,000 sei whales in the waters, outnumbering the estimated 25,000 minke whales, said Seiji Osumi, director general of Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research.

Also facing scrutiny is the recent controversial claim by Japan that whales are consuming several times the human catch of fish and endangering marine ecosystems.

Scientists coming to the venue mainly declined comment on Japan’s new expanded whaling plan.

But Randall Reeves from Canada said, “I don’t think it is a good idea.”

Vincent Ridoux, 41, from France’s Marine Mammal Research Center, said, “In general, the issues that are studied are very interesting,” but he added that he wants a nonlethal method of research to be developed to allow for a reduction in whale catches.

A scientist from prowhaling Iceland, which aims to rejoin the body but has been only granted observer status, said he does not expect the IWC to allow commercial whaling to resume “in the foreseeable future.”

The monthlong series of meetings will culminate in a May 20-24 ballot-casting plenary assembly, where 600 people are expected to participate.

It is the first time Japan has hosted an IWC session since 1993, when it held the meeting in Kyoto. This time Japan chose this western port as the venue due to its history as the nation’s major whaling base.

In the city’s port facing the Kammon Strait dividing Honshu and Kyushu are two whaling ships that recently returned from the Antarctic Ocean.

Japan recently sparked controversy by announcing plans to import whale meat from Norway as early as May and to expand its research whaling in the Northwest Pacific to add sei whales, considered an endangered species.

Japan started research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean in late 1987, the same year commercial whaling was banned. It caught roughly the same amount of whales — the meat of which ended up in posh restaurants — as its commercial whaling used to bring in but said the purpose of the catch was to gather biological data and that the IWC allows research whaling.

Antiwhaling countries and organizations condemn the expeditions as a cover for commercial whaling.

Japan hopes the IWC will complete a new resource-management scheme this year to pave the way for a resumption of commercial whaling, although it remains unlikely to win a breakthrough because of anticipated opposition from antiwhaling nations.

Conservationists, on the other hand, are likely to fail in their bids to enhance the 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling by setting up more sanctuaries, as any IWC decision requires a two-third majority approval.

The program Japan plans in the Northwest Pacific from this year involves catching up to 150 minke whales — including 50 in coastal hunting — 50 Bryde’s whales, 10 sperm whales and 50 of the bigger sei whales.

Japan claims it found sei whales outnumbering minke whales in the program’s 2000-2001 preliminary operations, while the IWC has treated the species as one deserving protection, saying it lacks evidence to officially estimate the species’ populations.

Japan also included quotas for coastal hunting, apparently to pave the way for local whaling communities to catch minke whales after failed attempts to do so independently as an interim relief measure until commercial whaling resumes.

Expecting discussions on the so-called Revised Management Scheme to wrap up this year, Japan plans to propose that the moratorium, which has been place since late 1985, be lifted.

As for sanctuaries, it plans to propose ending the Indian Ocean Sanctuary, in place since 1979, in its one-in-a-decade review process this year.

Whaling opponents in turn are expected to again propose sanctuaries to increase the pressure on Japan to abandon its research whaling, with Australia and New Zealand seeking establishment of a South Pacific Sanctuary and Brazil and Argentina a South Atlantic Sanctuary.

The IWC is likely to again adopt a nonbinding resolution urging Japan to stop its research programs in the Northwest Pacific and Antarctic Ocean.

Last year’s meeting in London ended in disarray, as whaling nations, including Japan and Norway, proposed that the 16-year global moratorium on commercial whaling be lifted, a suggestion that met strong opposition from antiwhaling countries, including the United States, Britain and Canada.

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