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SYDNEY — Once again Japanese whale-meat eaters have outwitted the world’s whale lovers. Though those diners need not raise too many self-congratulatory cups of sake. Within a year or two the Tokyo whale restaurant tables could be overturned.

The antiwhaling nations, narrowly defeated in their bid to halt Japan’s “scientific research” whaling, are preparing to harpoon the pro-Japan consortium before the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission in July 2001.

“Client states of Japanese largess,” as critics dub a whaling-sympathetic bloc of voting countries, effectively sank the antiwhaling majority of nations at last week’s IWC meeting in Adelaide, South Australia. The vote only just missed the three-quarters majority needed to curtail commercial whaling. And the antiwhalers are jubilant that at least one of the prowhaler members looks about to jump ship.

A “marvelous political circus” is how one Australian reporter covering the weeklong meeting described it. Boatloads of influence peddlers outnumbered the scientific advisers. Japan, the bete noir of conservationists, sent 100 observers, the women kimono-clad, to hand out messages such as “some whales are abundant.” Happily, no blood was thrown as happened a few years back.

This 52nd annual IWC bun fight was, like the earlier ones, more emotive than scientific. The debate proved to be no less politically convoluted than the professional diplomat-delegates have allowed past whaling sessions to be. Though that rarity, a surprise, actually happened.

Dominica, a tiny nation in tropical Caribbean, startled the already committed Adelaide delegates. Dominican Environment Minister Atherton Martin resigned over his country’s vote against an Australia and New Zealand-sponsored motion for a protected whale sanctuary in the South Pacific. “There is absolutely no reason for us to be held to ransom by Japan in return for promises of aid,” he announced.

“Just as we suspected,” chortled Greenpeace International. That once unmentionable Tokyo-tied aid to poor countries was at least being bandied about.

“This is the first direct statement from someone in a government involved,” Greenpeace spokesman John Frizell said in support of claims that Tokyo rigs IWC voting in return for development grants.

Japanese delegates went into overdrive. After all, Tokyo’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are unflappable veterans of IWC diplomacy. The ultimate vote reaffirmed their expertise, though the public relations battle is far from won. The meeting broke up in the sure knowledge that Japan will again be painted as the world’s slaughterer of harmless marine mammals.

Indeed, Joji Morishita, the Japanese delegation spokesman, acknowledged as much at an antagonistic press conference. Will Tokyo ever tire of its pariah role? he was asked.

“We have been kicked around for the past 30 years,” he politely replied. “We are still strong. We seek more understanding. We will not give up.”

The United States, Britain and other strong advocates of restraining the annual whale catch took the setback in stride. They, too, have been in this boat before. Besides, their voting strength has risen over the years, as have world-wide demonstrations against whaling.

Not that the likes of the Dominican breakaway can be assured of always going against Japan. For instance, Adelaide welcomed the first appearance of a new, prowhaling member, Guinea. The underdeveloped African nation joined after encouragement from Japan.

Host-nation Australia managed to keep the Adelaide proceedings on an even keel, even in defeat. Its demand for a South Pacific whale sanctuary got majority support from conservationist nations but not enough. Still, Australia and New Zealand will persist. The Southern Ocean sanctuary got many knock-backs before it was approved in 1994.

Not that Japan pays much respect for the sanctuary agreement. Japanese whalers have killed an estimated 2,476 minke whales inside its boundaries since then. Worse, claimed delegates, within weeks Japanese gunners will start killing Bryde’s and sperm whales for the first time in more than a decade.

Nor might the harpoon fleets stop there. British Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley said: “There were hints in our discussions that humpback whales are next on the list.”

Canberra now has to rally fresh support for a protection area east of New Zealand and north to the equator. One option, according to Environment Minister Robert Hill, is to bring South Pacific countries into the IWC. Hill claims these small island states have a direct interest in the debate. But that sort of numbers-stacking would hit Tokyo with an open challenge that could rebound against Australia’s all-important export industry.

Australia was odd man out in another Adelaide decision — to step up work on a management plan to control whaling if a moratorium agreed in 1987 were to be passed. Antiwhaling Australia is getting more vocal in opposition to hidden commercial whaling. Here, whale spotting is a tourist attraction. Oddly, many Japanese tourists come here just to join the locals in shouting: “Thar she blows!”

Hypocrisy is too strong a word to be tossed about by dignified IWC delegates. But it’s always just below the surface. When Australia’s Hill called on the IWC to move toward conservation and nonlethal use of whales in business such as whale watching, Japan’s IWC commissioner, Minoru Morimoto, replied that this was against the commission’s mandate to manage commercial whaling.

“If Senator Hill does not agree with the specified purpose, we suggest he take Australia out of the IWC,” Morimoto intoned.

The oft-repeated criticism of Japan’s slaughter of whales for scientific research earned Morimoto a serve on Canberra. Japan has been giving itself permission to whale under commission rules since the global moratorium on commercial whaling started after 1986. The kill to date is more than 5,000 minke whales. The annual sale of meat and blubber, 3.5 billion yen, is supposed to cover the costs of research.

“Australia authorizes the killing of more than 2 million kangaroos a year based on scientific advice,” Morimoto noted. “The kangaroo industry argues that in a protein-starved world it is morally indefensible not to utilize these animals in a sustainable way. Where is the fair go?”

That tit-for-tat argument goes around in circles. Like Japan, Australia has heard it all before. Notably from U.S. conservationists who never bother to come here to marvel at the increasing number of kangaroos.

Still, talk of Japan’s research, heritage and cultural attitudes does not sit easily with Australian whale watchers. “How many whales do Japanese scientists need to disembowel to figure out the eating habits of whales?” asked one letter writer to the Sydney Morning Herald. “How stupid they must think we are to suggest the killing of whales is a Japanese tradition when they use electronic tracking and factory ships.”

Home again, the IWC fighters are now regrouping for the next round in London next July. Still-resolute Australian whale lovers realize they face a tough battle to extend whaling exclusion zones, let alone any enforceable ban on commercial whaling in any of its disguises. They say it’s hard to get an IWC majority when Tokyo votes are backed by Norway, a whaler and supplier of whale meat to Japan, and the so-called bloc of yen aid beneficiary countries.

“People seem to forget there is no leverage against Japan’s scientific whaling,” opines Cassandra Phillips from the Worldwide Fund for Nature. “They are raising two fingers at the world.”

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