Japan's unsuccessful push to overturn a two-decade-old ban on commercial whaling has left the International Whaling Commission bitterly divided at the end of the regulatory body's annual meeting. Joseph Popiolkowski reports from Hong Kong that Japan says it will now consider withdrawing from the organization.
Japan and its pro-whaling coalition failed Thursday to overturn the moratorium on whaling and left the IWC's week-long meeting in Alaska further estranged from the rival pro-conservation faction - led by Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and others.
Japan threatened to withdraw from the body, create its own organization, and begin hunting rare humpback whales later this year.
Japan defends its call for a full-scale resumption of commercial whaling by claiming it is a Japanese cultural tradition going back centuries.
Japanese whaling crews still kill roughly 1,000 whales every year under the auspices of scientific research, which the commission allows. Critics say whale meat ends up for sale in markets and that popular support in Japan for whaling is an illusion. Norway and Iceland, openly defy the ban on commercial whaling.
Shane Rattenbury, of the environmental organization Greenpeace, says Japan's response to the rebuff is typical and petty.
"Japan first threatened to walk out of the International Whaling Commission in 1982, I believe, so it is a threat that's been heard before," Rattenbury said. "I think it's quite an irresponsible threat. There does need to be international management of whale stocks and I think Japan is missing the point. I think they're living in the past century in suggesting that whaling is still a viable industry."
Rattenbury, who heads up Greenpeace's ocean campaign, says not enough attention is being given to what he describes as the real problems facing marine life. He wants to see the politically charged hunting issue taken off the IWC's agenda.
"Whales face many threats in the ocean these days aside from hunting; issues such as ship strike, entanglement in fishing nets, and the impacts of climate change mean that many hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins a year are dying," he said. "Hunting is the last thing that they need and the thing we can most easily stop."
The commission did approve subsistence hunting quotas for indigenous people in Alaska, Greenland and northeastern Russia. Such quotas come up for debate every five years.
Rattenbury supports those quotas because the hunting is for noncommercial purposes and the animal is used in its entirety.
"We're not opposed to indigenous subsistence hunts," he said. "There's a clear provision under the International Whaling Commission for these hunts, and, from a Greenpeace point of view, we recognize the right of traditional communities to take a small number of whales to maintain a traditional way of life, particularly where it's linked very closely to their diets."
The IWC, which has 77 member nations and is charged with maintaining the earth's whale stocks, passed the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. Japan has fought unsuccessfully to have the ban lifted since then.