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Japan plans new pro-whalers group to end hunting ban

Written by: Staff

TOKYO, June 7 (Reuters) Japan plans a new group for nations that support commercial whaling in a bid to end a 20-year ban on the activity, officials said, reiterating threats to leave the International Whaling Commission if it didn't lift the ban.

The threat to quit the IWC, which meets later this month, could shatter the group originally set up to manage hunting of whales.

''If things go on like this, the raison d'etre of the IWC as a whaling management organisation disappears,'' said Hideki Moronuki, head of the whaling section at the Fisheries Agency.

''Without normalisation over the next two or three years, there's definitely the danger that voices asking whether the IWC is needed at all will increase.'' Japan says eating whale meat is a cherished cultural tradition, and along with other whaling nations such as Norway says there are enough stocks of some whale species to allow limited hunting.

Opponents denounce the hunts as cruel abuse of the world's biggest creatures.

Japan gave up commercial whaling in line with an international ban in 1986, but began hunting the animals the following year for what it calls scientific research. Critics say much of the meat ends up in gourmet restaurants.

In May, Japanese ships returned from an expanded hunt that outraged Australia, where whale watching is a popular tourist attraction.

''There is no desire in the IWC to lift the whaling ban, which shows how abnormal things are,'' said Yoshimasa Hayashi, a ruling party lawmaker whose southwestern district is a whaling area.

''But there are some groups there that won't listen to anything, so nothing can be voted on. If we can't normalise it through outside discussions, all we can do is leave.'' Japan plans to make its proposal at the June 16-20 IWC meeting on the Caribbean island of St Kitts and Nevis, where pro-whaling nations could win a slim majority but will still fall short of the three-quarters needed to end the moratorium.

The presence of landlocked nations like Mongolia among the pro-whaling camp has long fed talk of vote buying through Japan's generous foreign aid programme. Moronuki denied the charge.

''That is an insult,'' he said. ''We give aid to many nations, including anti-whaling ones like India and Peru.'' REFORM Japanese officials said the new group would aim to reform the fractious IWC, not split it or set up a rival body.

Participants would include pro-whaling nations as well as what Japan considers ''moderate'' anti-whaling nations which believe that strictly-controlled whaling is possible.

Activists took a dim view of the plans.

''This idea is based on the premise that the IWC situation is abnormal, which we don't believe,'' said Mizuki Takana, ocean campaigner with Greenpeace Japan. ''We oppose all whaling.'' Despite Tokyo's insistence that eating whale is an integral part of its food culture, demand is scant among consumers.

Young people opt for hamburgers instead of raw whale meat or boiled blubber, a preference lawmaker Hayashi blamed on the ban.

''Young people don't eat whale because their chances to do so have been stolen from them,'' Hayashi he said. ''We should be able to decide what we eat for ourselves.'' REUTERS CH KP1047

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