The International Whaling Commission meeting got underway Monday amid accusations that Japan, the leading pro-whaling country, is buying votes of smaller nations in its bid to have an 18-year ban on commercial whaling overturned.
Environmentalists reiterated long-standing charges that Japan is using development aid to swell the number of pro-whaling nations. The Japanese said in a statement Monday that countries with which it has fishing business "are often more prepared to understand our position."
As the conference in this sea resort in southern Italy opened, an anti-whaling group presented a report that it said debunks the Japanese argument that whales are overeating fish.
"The study shows that there is nothing to the argument that we could remove marine mammals, especially baleen whales, and feed the world with their food," Daniel Pauly, a professor at the Fisheries Center, University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and one of the experts who wrote the report, said in an interview with Associated Press Television News. "This food that marine mammals consume is essentially taken in areas where we don't fish and consists of animals that we do not exploit."
The report, called "Competition between Marine Mammals and Fisheries: Food for Thought," was funded in part by the international arm of The Humane Society of the United States, which is a member of an anti-whaling coalition of over 140 non-governmental organizations called Whalewatch. It mapped the fisheries of the world and compared it with the fish consumption of marine mammals, finding few zones of overlap between the two.
"If the marine mammals were removed it would make no difference for the fisheries," Pauly said.
Japan, the world's prime consumer of whale meat, and other pro-whaling countries such as Norway and Iceland say whales must be culled to prevent the continued decline of global fish stocks.
"Many of the whale stocks around Japan are increasing and consuming huge quantities of at least 10 species of fish that are caught by our fishermen," according to Japan's opening statement.
The IWC meeting, which gathers hundreds of delegates from the 57 member countries as well as environmentalist groups, runs through Thursday.
Japan failed Monday in a bid to have all of this week's votes conducted by secret ballot. Its proposal was rejected 29-24.
Environmentalists applauded Monday's decision, saying it ensured transparency in IWC decisions.
Lifting the 1986 ban on commercial whaling has been the focus of recent IWC meetings. This year, Japan says it might consider pulling out of the commission if the ban is not overturned, but added it would be a last resort.
However, with a three-fourths majority required to overturn the moratorium, many expect the ban will stay in place.
"The anti-whaling nations simply don't want to lift the moratorium, and as they have enough votes to block any lifting, the ban will stay in place," said the High North Alliance, which gathers hunters from Canada, Iceland, Norway and other countries.
The High North Alliance says there is enough scientific evidence that several whale stocks can be hunted in a sustainable way, including minke whales, the smallest of the baleen whales at about 30 feet.
Pro-whaling countries are close to winning the balance of power within the commission a result, environmentalist groups say, of what they call Japan's vote-buying technique.
The WWF and other environmentalist groups say Japan is misusing development aid to manipulate the votes of developing countries. The WWF says the pro-whaling bloc has grown steadily in the past years from nine in the year 2000 to 21 in 2003. This year it is forecast at 27.
WWF says that among these is Mongolia, which does not have a coastline. Greenpeace lists Suriname, Tuvalu, Mauritania and Ivory Coast as recent additions to the pro-whaling bloc.
"This is a clear case of 'money talks,' and it's happening in front of us. It is time we put a stop to this ongoing vote-buying, before it's too late," said John Frizell of Greenpeace International.
Responding to the accusations, Japan said in a statement that it has "fisheries relationships" with many nations around the world. "When we have a chance to discuss the IWC situation with those nations, they are often more prepared to understand our position," a delegation statement said.
The IWC commission, which was created in 1946 with the purpose of proper conservation of whale stocks and the orderly development of the whaling industry, has become polarized in recent years.
Japan and other pro-whaling countries accuse the organization of having strayed from its mission of supervising, not dismantling, the whaling industry.
In its opening remarks, Tokyo insisted that the total protection of whales is contradictory to "the cultural values of people of Japan and other countries that view whales as a valuable food resource."
The meeting is expected to be a fractious one.
"It is a very critical time," said Joji Morishita, a Japanese delegate. "There will be a lot of dispute at discussions. If we cannot get out of this meeting with some kind of rebuilding of trust, the commission will face a really difficult time."
By Trisha Thomas