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Japan is the world’s prime consumer of whale meat.
updated 7/20/2004 3:41:36 PM ET 2004-07-20T19:41:36

Challenging the anti-whaling movement at an acrimonious global conference, Japan proposed hunting nearly 3,000 minke whales a year in the Antarctic, saying whale populations in the southern oceans were healthy enough to replenish their losses even if a 1986 moratorium on whaling is lifted.

While divided on that issue, nations with the International Whaling Commission on Tuesday declared that endangered gray whales in the waters around Russia’s Sakhalin Island need urgent protection from oil and gas development in the area.

The commission passed the resolution on the second day of an acrimonious meeting that has been dominated by Japan’s efforts to overturn the 1986 ban.

Japan made its proposal on minke whale hunting in the Antarctic on Monday evening.

The proposal was expected to be rejected, as it requires a three-fourths majority to pass. But it signaled Japan’s determination to have the ban on commercial whaling overturned — and indicated Japan’s intentions if the ban is ever lifted.

Japan cites 'healthy abundance'
“Minke whales are extremely abundant in the southern ocean,” said Japan’s commissioner to the agency, Minoru Morimoto. “The population will be able to fully sustain the proposed quota and at the same time maintain its current healthy abundance levels.”

Japan proposed taking a quota of 2,914 minke whales from the Antarctic Ocean, according to a statement released by the Japanese delegation at the talks. In 1990, the whaling commission’s scientific committee said there were 760,000 minke whales in the Antarctic, the statement said.

Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales at about 30 feet.

Japan received a blow to its efforts to lift the ban at the opening session of the meeting Monday when its bid to have all votes taken by secret ballot was rejected — a decision applauded by environmentalists, who said it ensured transparency within the organization.

Japan is the world’s prime consumer of whale meat. Like Iceland, it hunts whales for research, which is permitted by the commission. But Japan says it wants to resume commercial whaling and promises to do so in a sustainable way.

'Absolute urgency' for gray whales
The resolution on gray whales -- sponsored by Britain, South Africa, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Austria and adopted by consensus -- stated that it is “a matter of absolute urgency that measures be taken to protect this population and its habitat off Sakhalin Island.”

Only about 100 gray whales are thought to survive, and the species was listed as “critically endangered” in 2000 because of its geographic and genetic isolation. The commission’s scientific committee has said only 23 reproductive females are left in the world.

The resolution also called for increased monitoring and research activity in the Sakhalin area “in view of the uncertainty over the possible negative impacts on the population and its habitat by current oil and gas activities.”

Royal Dutch/Shell Group has faced criticism from some environmental groups because of its oil and gas projects on Sakhalin. Last year, the energy giant said it had developed a new environmental protection plan for Sakhalin. The company also said at the time that it had funded studies of the whale population that have not revealed any harm to it.

“This is a wake-up call for Shell to pay proper attention to the environment when planning major oil projects” said Susan Lieberman, director of World Wildlife Fund’s Global Species Program. “The potential for a catastrophic spill from Shell’s oil project poses an unacceptable risk to this highly endangered whale population.”

The international conference runs through Thursday.

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