LONDON (Kyodo) Japan and other nations that favor whaling look set to take control of the International Whaling Commission next month, with environmentalists warning the mammals face one of their biggest threats since the ban on commercial hunting was introduced.

But if the prowhaling countries are able to get a majority on the IWC at the commission meeting in the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis from June 16 to 20, they will see it as a move forward in their long-term aim of reintroducing a limited form of whaling, which ensures that stocks are conserved.

Nongovernmental organizations in Britain believe it is likely the balance of power will shift for the first time in years from the antiwhaling to the prowhaling side.

They believe it could lead to the IWC adopting a positive stance on whaling and focusing less on the preservation and welfare of the species.

But Japan and like-minded nations claim one of the IWC’s original objectives should be to conserve stocks and make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry. They believe the current antiwhaling majority has imposed unnecessary regulations and taken the IWC away from its original aims.

At last year’s meeting, Japan and the prowhaling nations had a majority on paper in the 66-member IWC. However, several factors came together to prevent that majority from materializing and all of Japan’s proposals were voted down.

Antiwhaling campaigners believe this time around Japan will make a concerted effort to ensure all of its allies turn up and try to recruit new nations sympathetic to its cause.

It could be the first time since the mid-1970s that the whaling nations have a majority.

“If Japan gets the majority, it completely changes the situation in the IWC,” said Vassili Papastavrou of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “The consequences will be the adoption of some measures that may seem small but have major implications for the future.”

Although it will not be enough to overturn the moratorium on commercial whaling — that would require 75 percent of the votes — it could mark the start of a process where the authority of the ban is undermined and ultimately lifted, environmentalists argue.

For example, an IWC with a prowhaling majority could weaken the moratorium by passing resolutions favoring a return to whaling, Papastavrou says.

Environmentalists believe this new majority is also likely to endorse Japan’s controversial scientific whaling program.

Under IWC rules, members are allowed to catch whales for scientific research. In the past, however, the IWC has passed resolutions against Japan’s program of catching around 900 each year in the Southern Ocean, claiming it is a cover for commercial hunting.

But Japan denies the charge. It claims one of the main reasons for the introduction of the moratorium was uncertainty over the numbers of whales, their age composition and mortality rate. The scientific data is necessary to clear up these ambiguities, it says.

Japan is also likely to get the IWC to approve secret ballots, antiwhaling campaigners claim. Japan says this is to keep smaller countries from coming under pressure from major antiwhaling nations. Critics claim it is designed to cover up Japan’s alleged buying of smaller African and Caribbean nations to join the IWC, a charge Tokyo denies.

Environmental campaigners do not see much progress being made on getting an agreement on a so-called revised management system, or RMS, which would see a return to whaling but on a sustainable basis and with more controls in place. Both factions are still divided over the costs of such a plan.

Japan’s whaling lobby agrees that in the past some species were over-hunted and that there still needs to be protection of stocks. But it says numbers have now been restored to the point where a system of managed whaling can go ahead.

Virag Kaufer, from the Whalewatch coalition, says securing a majority will mean the prowhaling nations can determine the IWC’s agenda and keep topics they do not like from being discussed.

“They could keep issues of conservation and animal welfare off the agenda. That would result in a huge international outcry,” she said.

Kaufer hopes to see progress at this year’s meeting on efforts to reduce the time it takes for whales to die and ensuring that the correct killing methods are used to avoid prolonged suffering.

Whaling nations would argue that much has been done over the years to improve the technology of the weapons.

Japan has made clear in discussions on this year’s draft agenda that it believes the IWC should not concern itself with a lot of the welfare and conservation issues it has done so previously. These include topics such as whale watching, killing methods and ocean sanctuaries.

However, it does not intend — at least this year — to strike out any of those contentious issues.

Still, Japan has said that it will try to delete from the agenda any discussion or action arising out of an IWC committee report on small cetaceans (sometimes referred to as small whales and including dolphins and porpoises.)

In the past, this scientific body has been critical about the sustainability of Japan’s small cetacean hunts and has expressed more general concern about cetaceans getting caught in fishing nets, according to environmentalists.

“This (if the agenda item is deleted) would be a huge step back for animal conservation,” said Mark Simmonds, international director of science at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

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