SYDNEY — Japanese whalers are coming and there appears no way of stopping them. Worse, their harpoons are about to slaughter more of the ocean mammals than ever.

This fear agitates many Australians. That’s why they are organizing a new wave of protests and appealing to world opinion against the Japanese whaling industry. A growing protect-the-whales movement could easily escalate into demands for tighter controls over Japanese tuna fishing in Australian waters.

Not that the Australian government is resorting to direct action. Prime Minister John Howard claims that Australia’s objections to Japan’s killing more whales in the Southern Pacific will remain within the bounds of diplomatic niceties. Even so, the latest bout in this long-running global war of words is doing nothing to enhance relations between Canberra and Tokyo.

Recently, an Australian Federal Court ruling further soured public attitudes toward the business of Japan’s fishing in the southern ocean. The Humane Society International had sought to prevent Japanese whaling company Kyodo Senpaku from whaling in Australia-claimed waters off Antarctica. The decision by presiding Justice James Allsop that the case should not proceed gave Japan the go-ahead to begin hunting fin and humpback whales there in a matter of weeks. In dismissing the human society’s application, one justice noted that legal action could jeopardize Australian national interests.

What brought this case to an abrupt end — and angered the antiwhaling lobby — was a submission from Attorney General Phillp Ruddock that Canberra had no right to enforce its own laws on Japan. Tokyo does not recognize Australia’s claim to sovereignty over what Australia calls the Australian Antarctic Territory. The Canberra government is thus following a broad diplomatic stance, as it cares deeply about its good relations with Australia’s biggest trading partner and longtime regional ally.

Howard wrote to his Japanese counterpart, Junichiro Koizumi, that whales are “a great delight” to whale-spotters and that there is no proven need to kill whales as part of a scientific program. “Considerable public concern could be expected, not only in Australia but across the globe, were whaling to increase,” Howard wrote.

Koizumi’s response was clearly a nonresponse. Australian journalists trying to find out whether Tokyo would reverse its see-no-evil tradition and put pressure on Japanese whalers got the usual bureaucratic runaround.

The opposition Labor Party’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Kevin Rudd, is determined not to let Howard off the hook on the issue. “Show some courage,” Rudd goaded. “Stand up to Japan and prepare a case to take to the International Court of Justice.”

Whaling was Australia’s first export industry back in 1792. Today Australians enjoy watching whales and most abhor their slaughter. Last year 40,000 people in Sydney watched the creatures cavort through the waves. An alarmed Labor state government in Sydney, with one eye on international tourists who come to see the annual northward whale migration to warmer Pacific breeding waters, is diving in for the kill.

“A majority of Australians would be prepared to put up with some souring of relations with Japan if that were necessary to stop the horrifying whale slaughter,” said New South Wales Environment Minister Bob Debus.

Howard’s senior ministers are racing to lobby the International Whaling Commission, due to debate the issue later this month in South Korea. Federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell met with Japanese Ambassador Hideaki Ueda in Canberra and told him the gloves were off in the fight to prevent bigger kills, particularly of humpback whales.

Campbell says Japan is exploiting a loophole in the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to justify a higher annual whale kill. “It is the Australian government’s intention over the medium term to try to close that loophole,” he said. “Diplomacy can work.”

No way, scoffs Peter Garrett, former head of the Australian Conservation Foundation and now a Labor member of Parliament. “Diplomacy,” he says, “will not deliver salvation to these whales.”

The whales under threat include 800 minkes (double the number that Japan has taken up to now) plus new quotas to hunt fin and humpback whales for “scientific purposes.”

Japan’s assertion that it carries out whaling activities on behalf of science, a claim generally ridiculed around the world by all but the few whaling countries, is not the only harpoon in Tokyo’s arsenal. The Japanese yen, coming in the form of generous aid to Third World nations, is far more effective in influencing whaling commission debates.

Sydney columnist Mike Carlton notes that “the Japanese infamously bribe poorer member nations [of the whaling commission] with wedges of foreign aid to grab their votes.”

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has rejected calls to use Canberra’s Pacific aid budget to push South Pacific countries such as the Solomon Islands to support Australia at the coming South Korea debate.

If not for the fact that Australians are absorbed by bigger controversies at the moment — such as the recent drug-smuggling conviction of Queenslander Schapelle Corby in an Indonesian court — the whaling wrangle would be exploding in strident anti-Japan headlines.

If Campbell fails to win over the votes of European Commission members at the South Korea meeting and Japan increases its whale kill, the Greens leader in the Senate, Bob Brown, proposes that Australia close all of its ports to Japan’s fishing fleet.

Brown said Canberra did that four years ago when Japanese fishermen exceeded an agreed catch of southern blue fin tuna catch. With no ports to go to, the tuna boats headed for home. “That costs money,” says Brown. “They’re in the whaling business to make money.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.