TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s whaling fleet in the Antarctic will avoid killing humpback whales for now, but will press on with plans to slay 1,000 other whales by early in the New Year, a government official said Friday.
The move follows Australia’s announcement Wednesday that it would send a fisheries patrol ship to gather evidence for a possible International Court challenge to halt Japan’s yearly slaughter.
Plans by Japan to include 50 endangered humpbacks in its annual hunt had sparked an outcry from activists.
Popular among whale watchers for their distinctive silhouette and acrobatic leaps, humpbacks were hunted to near extinction until the International Whaling Commission (IWC) ordered their protection in 1966.
“Japan has decided not to catch humpback whales for one year or two,” government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura told reporters.
“Japan’s relations with Australia could improve, but it depends on how it will see our decision.”
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said through a spokesman that while the move was welcome, there was no good reason for Japan to continue any sort of whaling.
Australia, Britain, France and Germany were among 30 nations who lodged a joint diplomatic protest with the Japanese Foreign Ministry on Friday over Tokyo’s annual whale hunt.
Machimura said Japan made its decision to spare the humpbacks after holding talks with the head of the IWC. He said Japan would suspend its humpback whale hunt while the IWC held talks on “normalizing” its functions, but would continue with its “scientific research” whaling.
Machimura said the IWC had been distorted by ideology.
Japan’s whaling fleet set sail last month with plans to catch more than 1,000 whales, including 50 humpbacks. It is due back early next year.
Japan, which says whaling is a cherished cultural tradition, abandoned commercial whaling in accordance with an international moratorium in 1986, but began what it calls a scientific research whaling program the following year.
Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura defended his country’s whaling, saying it was in line with international treaties.
Komura spoke by telephone with his Australian counterpart, who voiced his concern over the issue, the Tokyo Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
It said Komura had restated Japan’s basic stance on research whaling. The ministry said Smith had given an assurance that the row would not harm bilateral ties.
Smith’s spokesman told Reuters: “The Australian government welcomes the announcement by Japan that it will suspend its plan to kill humpback whales this season.
“While this is a welcome move, the Australian government strongly believes that there is no credible justification for the hunting of any whales and will vigorously pursue its efforts ... to see an end to whaling by Japan.”
In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Claudia McMurray said, “Japan’s decision will promote global efforts to protect the endangered humpback whale. It also is an important step in fostering continued cooperation through the IWC.”
Japanese officials told the U.S. Commissioner and IWC chairman Bill Hogarth they would postpone the harvest of humpback whales at least until after the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission slated for June.
In their joint protest to Tokyo’s Foreign Ministry, the 30 nations and European Commission said: “We are extremely concerned that more than 11,000 whales have been killed under scientific programs since the introduction of the moratorium.”
They added: “Taking into consideration the government of Japan’s environmental credentials in several areas, we strongly urge Japan to join the international community and cease all its lethal scientific research on whales, and assure the immediate return of the vessels.”
While Japan kills whales for “scientific purposes,” the meat of the giant marine mammals ends up in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants. These days, though, it is a delicacy for which the public appetite is waning.
Some experts say Japan fears that limits on whaling will lead to limits on all Japanese fishing, while others argue the whaling campaign is a form of nationalist diplomacy.
Reporting by Chisa Fujioka in TOKYO and James Regan in SYDNEY; editing by Roger Crabb