Fate of whales depends on Obama: conservationists

FUNCHAL, Portugal Fri Jun 26, 2009 10:59am EDT

FUNCHAL, Portugal (Reuters) - Conservationists are looking to the United States to help re-establish the authority of the International Whaling Commission after IWC delegates this week failed to reach a deal to regulate global whaling.

A moratorium on commercial whaling was agreed at the IWC in 1986. But Japan continues to skirt the ban, citing research purposes, while Iceland and Norway simply ignore it and harpoon whales for commercial use, leaving the IWC looking irrelevant and in danger of collapsing.

Instead of coming up with a deal this week to marry the views of anti-whaling nations such as Australia and whaling countries Japan, Norway and Iceland, IWC delegates agreed only to extend the deadline for a compromise for a year.

Opponents of whaling argue that many species face extinction, and that the explosive harpoons in general use can cause horrific suffering.

The Obama administration has so far taken a back seat at the IWC but has been highly active on other aspects of environmental protection, raising hopes among conservation groups that it may yet convince Japan, in particular, to make concessions.

"We hope the U.S. can now show leadership at the IWC and are convinced that, if they act in a proactive manner, they can help the commission and Japan to get out of the deadlock," said Remi Parmentier of the U.S.-based Pew Whales Conservation Project.

"We have a lot of hard work to do in the next year," said Monica Medina, one of the new U.S. delegates to the IWC. "And our administration will roll up their sleeves and we will work hard."

The IWC allows Japan to hunt 900 whales a year for research purposes, but anti-whaling nations say it uses the quota commercially, and that whale meat ends up on the dinner table.

Japan says stocks of species like the small minke are big enough to allow limited hunts. It says the IWC has betrayed its roots by emphasizing conservation above all else instead of enabling the development of a sustainable whaling industry, and that this may soon rob it of its reason for existing.

But the Japanese government is under severe pressure in opinion polls, and may find it easier to consider compromises after a national election later this year.

"It is imperative that a short-term agreement is in place by next year. Without that, the future of the IWC is seriously in doubt," said Joji Morishita, a senior official in the Japanese delegation.

(Editing by Axel Bugge and Kevin Liffey)