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International Whaling Commission Votes to Strengthen Protection Efforts - 2003-06-17

Japan has warned that it is reviewing its membership in the International Whaling Commission, after the organization voted to strengthen its efforts to protect whales. Japan and other pro-whaling countries say such a move alters the nature of the IWC, which was set up 57 years ago to manage whale hunting.

Japanese delegates at the world whaling body's conference in Berlin say their country is rethinking its role in the organization and may even consider pulling out due to Monday's pro-conservation vote.

Japan and its main allies, Norway and Iceland, say the vote was an attempt to end whaling altogether. They say the decision to bolster conservation efforts transforms the purpose of the whaling body from resource management to total prohibition of whaling.

An official of the IWC, who requested that he not be identified, says Japan may either quit the organization altogether or stay in, but refuse to pay its contributions, which are the highest of any member nation. He says he does not expect Japan to walk out of the Berlin meeting in protest to Monday's vote, because it has requested permission from the whaling body to hunt another 300 whales a year.

Although a global moratorium on commercial whale hunting has been in place since 1986, Japan has been allowed to hunt non-endangered species of whales in the name of scientific research. But environmentalists say the so-called research hunts are commercial whaling in disguise because the meat from the slaughtered whales ends up in Japanese restaurants, where it is considered a delicacy.

Iceland, which is also considering how to respond to the new measures protecting whales, is seeking permission to conduct its own research hunts. Norway has simply ignored the ban on commercial whaling.

The anti-whaling lobby, led by such countries as the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Brazil, and Mexico, overcame opposition from Japan and its allies Monday, winning the vote to set up a conservation committee by 25 to 20.

The committee will make recommendations on how to protect whales from over-hunting, pollution, shipping, and the use of sonar, all of which, environmentalists say, have reduced the world's whale population.

The core of the debate within the whaling organization appears to be whether there is such a thing as sustainable harvesting of whales. Though there are no provisions for enforcing the conservation committee's recommendations, Japan argues that the pro-conservation move is a Trojan horse that threatens the whaling commission's future.