The United States Monday urged Japan to call off plans for its largest-ever whale hunt, nominally for scientific research. Japanese whalers plan to kill, among others, humpback whales for the first time since they were put under international protection in 1963. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The United States has joined several other countries and environmental groups in calling on Japan to rescind plans for killing more than 1,000 whales, including humpback whales which had been nearly hunted to extinction before a ban on killing them was imposed in 1963.
The International Whaling Commission, the IWC, has entirely banned commercial whaling since 1986. But Japan, the world's largest consumer of whale meat, has killed thousands of whales in recent years under a controversial provision in global rules allowing some whales to be killed for scientific research.
Japanese hunting has been mainly confined to relatively plentiful smaller species such as Minke and Bryde's whales.
But Japanese authorities enraged environmental groups this month with an announcement that the country's small whaling fleet - which set sail for the South Pacific Sunday on a five-month hunt - aims to kill as many as 50 humpback and 50 fin whales in addition to more than 900 minke whales.
The plan drew criticism from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and the environmental group Greenpeace said one of its ships would shadow the Japanese fleet. The United States joined the critics Monday, with State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack urging Japan to refrain from the planned hunt:
"While recognizing Japan's legal rights under the Whaling Convention to conduct this hunt, we note that non-lethal research techniques are available to provide nearly all relevant data on whale populations. We call on Japan to refrain from conducting this year's hunt, especially with respect to humpback and fin whales."
Spokesman McCormack also urged "restraint and measured approaches" by all sides in any protest activities that may be planned against the Japanese fleet in the southern ocean.
He said the sinking or damaging of a vessel in the area could have catastrophic consequences for the crews involved, the environment and the maritime resources of the region.
Early this year, an environmental activist group, Sea Shepherd, harassed the Japanese whaling boats with smoke canisters and efforts to snarl the vessels' propellers with ropes.
The Japanese hunt ended early after a fire broke out on the mother ship, killing a crew member and forcing it back to port.
Humpback whales can grow to be longer than 15 meters and weigh more than 3,500 kilograms. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the species has made a comeback and has become a favorite of whale watchers.
Japan has pressed for an end to the ban on commercial whaling within the IWC. It contends that whale populations have recovered enough to allow a managed catch, and that its nominally scientific annual hunt would help establish that.
Japanese officials have condemned groups trying to interfere with the hunt as environmental terrorists.
Tokyo's rationale for the hunt has been widely ridiculed. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark criticized what she termed the guise and deception being engaged in by Japan, and said it would be better if the whaling fleet stayed home.
The Australian government said it is deeply disappointed by the launch of the new expedition, with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer calling the program inhumane and saying there is no evidence of Japan producing any data from its research.