The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission began in Japan Thursday. Tokyo is expected to push the group to allow commercial whaling.
Delegates of the International Whaling Commission, or IWC, are gathering in Shimonoseki, a port town 825 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. It is one of the nation's oldest whaling towns.
Shimonoseki families have hunted whales for generations and the meat is served at numerous restaurants in the town. By choosing Shimonoseki for the IWC meeting, Tokyo seeks to demonstrate that whales are part of the country's culinary culture and history.
Japan stopped commercial whaling in 1986 after the IWC banned it to protect endangered species. But within a year, Japan started what it calls scientific whaling. It sends out its Northern Pacific Fleet to catch and kill hundreds of whales every year. The meat eventually ends up in restaurants.
The Japanese Fisheries Agency says the hunts are necessary to gather data on whale migration and reproduction, but critics say it is a thinly disguised way to skirt the ban on commercial hunts.
Scientists began the month-long meeting Thursday with a closed-door discussion on population trends of minke whales. Observers expect Japan to argue that the species is now abundant and that a limited commercial hunt would not endanger it. The IWC will issue a final report in two weeks.
Motoji Nagasawa, a spokesman for Greenpeace Japan, opposes ending the moratorium. He says the Japanese government often insists that the number of minke whales is rising but it has no scientific proof. He adds that if commercial whaling resumes, conservationists fear that hunters will catch more than their quotas.
To lift the ban, three quarters of the IWC's 43 members would have to approve the move, which is unlikely. Japan has the backing of Norway, another major whaling nation, but many other countries, including the United States, oppose the idea. The commission is expected to vote on the issue at its plenary session in the end of May.