updated 6/21/2005 2:05:18 AM ET 2005-06-21T06:05:18

Japan said Monday it would dramatically expand its research whaling, doubling the number of minke whales it kills annually for scientific study.

The announcement came on the opening day of the International Whaling Commission’s annual plenary session, which also saw Japan and its pro-whaling allies lose a pair of early procedural votes considered a barometer for measuring the balance of forces in the group that regulates global whale hunts.

Japan said it would begin culling as many as 935 minke whales annually — up from 440 this year — in a new program beginning in the Southern Hemisphere later this year. The decision, an extension of the scientific research whaling Japan began in 1987, was expected.

The Cambridge, England-based commission, which has 66 members, banned commercial hunts in 1986, handing environmentalists a major victory in protecting species that were near extinction after centuries of whaling.

Norway holds the world’s only commercial whaling season in defiance of the ban, which IWC members are free to reject. Japan says it kills whales to study them before selling the meat, also allowed under commission rules, but which critics say amounts to commercial whaling in disguise.

Japan, Norway and other nations which advocate what they call “sustainable use” of sea resources, including whales, this year are expected to kill more than 1,550 of the mammals.

New Zealand and Australia, as well as conservation groups including Greenpeace, oppose any expansion of whaling. The United States criticized Japan’s decision to increase its research whale hunts, calling them unnecessary.

“We don’t think it’s needed for conservation or management of whales,” said Rolland A. Schmitten, who heads of the U.S. delegation, citing advances in technology. The U.S. opposes “lethal scientific whaling,” he said.

Japan also said it would add humpback and fin whales to its research culls, the first time those varieties would be included, although catches would annually number no more than 50 each and only after a two-year feasibility study is completed.

In an early setback for their hopes to gain control of the agenda and eventually overturn the ban on commercial whaling, Japan and its allies failed to muster a majority at the start of the five-day meeting in this industrial city facing the Sea of Japan.

A Japanese proposal to delete discussion of whale sanctuaries from the agenda was voted down 29-28. A second one, to introduce secret balloting, failed 30-27. Both tallies were seen as a test of whether whaling advocates had gained the upper hand at the commission.

A simple majority would give pro-whaling countries broad authority to set the agenda, meaning they could pass nonbinding resolutions favoring their stance and expressing support for Japan’s research program. However, it would still fall far short of the three-fourths required to overturn the moratorium on commercial whaling.

Japan and its allies, which include poor Caribbean and African nations including St. Kitts and Nevis and Gabon, say secret ballots protect smaller countries from intimidation by larger ones. Japan’s opponents, such as New Zealand, Australia and Britain, say secret ballots fly in the face of the need for transparency in international organizations.

Joji Morishita, Japan’s chief negotiator at the meeting, took heart that this year’s margin of defeat of three votes on secret ballots was smaller than last year’s five.

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