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The international whaling meeting that opens Monday is the most important in 15 years, and its outcome is as hard to predict as it is significant, according to the head of the U.S. delegation.

The International Whaling Commission plenary session is being held in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture.

“It is still a little early to get a take on the major issues. But this is absolutely the most important meeting since the moratorium (decided on in 1982 and in place since 1986),” U.S. IWC Commissioner Rolland Schmitten told The Japan Times on Friday.

For the first time in years, countries in support of commercial whaling could outnumber those who are opposed to the industry.

Schmitten said he had just received word that land-locked Mongolia had applied to join the IWC, while Palau, Benin, Gabon and San Marino are also expected to be new members participating in the IWC voting for the first time later this week.

“It is very suspect that countries with little interest in whaling are suddenly joining the IWC,” he said, when asked about speculation that Japanese official development aid is being used to recruit allies for those countries that favor whaling.

“(If it is occurring) I think it violates the spirit and intent of the IWC. If we have hard evidence that that is occurring we will raise that (issue) to the IWC,” Schmitten said.

Prior to the ongoing 54th IWC annual gathering in Shimonoseki, the commission had 43 members.

Schmitten also expressed doubt about Japan’s proposal to take 50 North Pacific sei whales to study “food-ecology” and the whales’ impact on fisheries. The whales generally feed on plankton.

Schmitten said it was premature to comment on what steps the United States might take, which could include levying sanctions, to induce Japan to abandon its expanded take.

Although the outcome is too close to call as it is within a vote either way at the moment, he predicted that Iceland could hold the deciding vote.

Iceland left the IWC in 1992 to hunt outside of the organization’s rules. It is looking to return as a voting member with a provision allowing it to hunt whales if progress is not made on repealing the moratorium. The issue will be put to a vote Monday.

But even if whaling nations do command a majority, Schmitten, director of the Habitat Division for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said it would not greatly affect policy.

“There would still be a strong desire, a sense of conservation, and I wouldn’t say that it had become a prowhaling organization,” he said.

Schmitten also said the U.S. is opposed to commercial whaling, but is working on a plan for the resumption of whaling in the future.

Schmitten said the U.S. is committed to completing a management plan — the Revised Management Scheme — to allow controlled commercial whaling if the ban is ever repealed.

“(The RMS) is nothing more than a management plan. It is good science because someday they may take a vote on 10e (the moratorium) and if the moratorium is lifted, we don’t want chaos. We want an orderly process to manage the resumption of whaling if that should ever happen.”

Still, in the short term Schmitten said he sees no prospect for lifting the moratorium on commercial whaling.

“The point is that there are still very endangered whales in the world and we still do not have enough information on them,” he said.

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