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Japan's Whale Hunt: a Case of Ecological Piracy

Wildlife: The U.S. challenges the slaughter in an Antarctic preserve.

February 12, 1996|RICHARD N. MOTT | Richard N. Mott is vice president for international policy of the World Wildlife Fund, Washington

Whale-watching is not a likely diversion for President Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto when they meet in Santa Monica two weeks hence. But the growing controversy over Japan's whaling policy is a matter overdue for their discussion and the Santa Monica talks a perfect occasion to send an environmental message.

At issue is Japan's refusal to abide by a global moratorium on commercial whaling, typified by its recent invasion of a new Antarctic sanctuary created by world governments to protect whales from hunting of any kind. On Friday, President Clinton took the first steps to deal with Japan's actions and the conservation crisis that has frustrated former administrations and much of the world community.

In a special report to Congress, the president laid the groundwork for a series of high-level negotiations aimed at ending Japan's illicit whaling in the Antarctic before next fall. If U.S. concerns are rebuffed, trade sanctions hang in the balance. Whether and how strongly the administration follows through will be an environmental referendum on the president, timed for the finish of an election year.

There could scarcely be a more compelling case. Individual whale populations have been hunted to extinction and many that remain are endangered. Once depleted, key species have proved unable to recover, even with protective measures in place. Illegal hunting is not the only threat to whales: New environmental dangers, such as climatic change and toxic chemicals, further cloud their prospects for recovery.

A dangerous decline in great whales prompted world governments 10 years ago to impose a global moratorium on commercial whaling. With the exception of Japan, the same countries voted in 1994 to establish a special sanctuary for whales in the Antarctic. Literally encircling the pole, the 30-million-square-mile Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was hailed by scientists and conservationists alike as a safe harbor in which whale populations could recover.

Japan's Antarctic whaling is in open violation of both the global moratorium and the new sanctuary, which it claims not to recognize. Although Japan pretends technical compliance with the ban on commercial hunting, Japan's so-called scientific whaling results in the needless slaughter of hundreds of whales. More than 400 minke whales will disappear this season, to reappear in high-end Tokyo sushi markets--a $200-per-pound luxury. Marketing the minke caught for "science" provides legal cover for illegal meat from endangered fin and humpback whales.

Whaling is only one of a number of areas, from tropical timber to factory fishing, in which Japan is out of step with world values on the environment. Its rash insistence on killing whales within the Antarctic sanctuary has drawn official censure from the world whaling body and formal diplomatic protest from Great Britain, France, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.

Despite the clamor of international opinion, the United States is the first country to step forward and threaten real consequences. A clock is now running against Japan's illicit whaling. For his intervention last week, the president deserves praise, but the real test will be the willingness to follow through, with sanctions if necessary, if Japan refuses to make this killing season in the Antarctic its last.

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