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Blowing Their Top
Greens react angrily as Japan ups the ante in the whale-hunt row

Going Against the Grain: A priest's fight against illegal logging in a Philippine timber town puts him in the firing line
Thieves' Wood of Choice: Illegally logged narra often turns up in affluent homes

For the Japanese waiting on the quaysides, it was a long-overdue time for celebration. Beer cans popped and cheers rang out as five whaling ships returned to their home ports after weeks away in the waters of the North Pacific. In the vessels' holds were nearly 90 whales — a throwback to the boom days of the Japanese whaling industry, when its fleets roamed the world's oceans in search of the giant beasts.

In the anti-whaling capitals of the world, the ships' haul of 43 Bryde's whales, five sperm whales and 40 smaller minkes was met with outrage. Conservationists were especially angry that the Japanese had gone ahead with a plan to take Bryde's and sperm, which are protected by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This was the first time Japan had upped the ante this way since 1986, when a ban on commercial whaling was introduced to end decades of over-exploitation that had driven several species to the brink of extinction. Bryde's and sperm are considered endangered, though the Japanese do not accept international estimates of population sizes for a number of species, including those two. Since 1987, the Japanese have been taking up to 500 minke a year under a controversial agreement with the IWC.

Japan and Norway, the only other country that still fishes commercially for whales, insist that their catches are for scientific purposes. They argue that data about whale populations are inaccurate and more research is needed. In addition, they say, sperm and Bryde's whales are devastating fish stocks. Finding out more about their breeding habits and distribution would help protect world food supplies. Japanese researchers say this cannot be done without killing the whales, in order to examine reproductive tissues, stomach contents and various organs.

Nineteen nations, including the U.S. and Britain, argue that the research argument is specious. Catching whales is about putting delicacies on dinner tables, they say. For them, the Japanese extension of whaling to Bryde's and sperm is designed to increase supplies. Says Fred O'Regan, president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare: "A single Bryde's whale can yield as much meat for the Japanese market as up to five minke whales. Sperm whales — the largest of the toothed whales — are just as profitable, with adults reaching lengths of 50 ft to 60 ft [15 meters to 18 meters] and weighing up to 45 tons." Minkes range up to 10 meters (33 ft).

The pro-whaling lobby does not deny that the meat goes to the restaurant trade. It explains that the proceeds — a minke sells for about $74,000 — are used to fund research programs. Says a spokesman for the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research: "It would be a waste not to do so. It is completely in line with [international regulations] that require that by-products of the research be processed." After one of the five whalers, the Nishinmaru, docked at Shimonoseki, fishermen could be seen unloading wooden crates from its refrigerated hold. Some seemed bound for laboratories; others were labeled "North Pacific specially selected red whale meat." In an average year, the Japanese eat up to 4,000 tons of whale meat, usually in the form of sashimi and steaks. The going price is between $12 and $15 for 100 grams.

The U.S. government is leading the campaign against whaling. In September, President Bill Clinton banned Japan from fishing mackerel and herring in U.S. waters. No foreign trawling is allowed at the moment, but new licenses are expected to be approved later this year. The Clinton administration is also considering imposing trade sanctions on Japan, probably involving seafood imports. Few people expect it to come to this, however. For some, Clinton's threat is merely designed to bolster Vice President Al Gore's standing with environmental groups ahead of the Nov. 7 presidential election.

The Japanese portray the issue as essentially a culture clash between traditional Japanese ways and the overbearing Anglo-Saxon world, principally the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Conservationists reply that many countries are opposed to whaling, including India, Brazil, Chile, Spain and Italy. Says Sakurai Junko of Greenpeace, Japan: "We are aghast at the way the Japanese government is behaving. We consider Japan's decision [to extend the catch to Bryde's whales and sperm whales] as a signal of the government's determination to slowly resume commercial whaling in a few years."

Embarrassingly for the Japanese government, a newly released survey indicates few people in Japan see the right to eat whale as important. Only one citizen in 10 fears the nation's cultural identity would be harmed if whaling were abandoned. The poll, conducted late last year by an independent British organization on behalf of anti-whaling groups, revealed that just 11% of respondents supported whaling, with 14% opposing it. Nearly 50% had not tasted whale meat since childhood, while 13% had never eaten it. Is something fishy going on somewhere?

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