TOKYO, Japan — Meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) are rarely happy affairs.
Ever since the body voted to ban commercial whaling in 1968, its annual gatherings have been characterized by rancor between pro- and anti-whaling nations, accusations of vote-buying and repeated threats of walkouts.
This year's meeting in Panama is no different. While Japan's annual "scientific" whaling program in the Southern Ocean is still the most contentious issue, South Korea this week opened up a new front in the global whale wars with a proposal to resume whaling in its coastal waters.
South Korean officials insist that the hunts will not constitute a violation of the commercial ban, but are necessary to properly study whale populations.
Japan uses the same clause in the IWC moratorium to kill almost 1,000 whales in the Antarctic every year, although in recent years its fleet has returned with smaller catches following confrontations with the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd.
The meat from those hunts is sold on the open market in Japan, where the public's appetite for the delicacy has declined dramatically since the end of the war, when whales were a vital source of protein.
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South Korea says it has to resort to lethal research to study the dietary habits of minke whales, which local fishermen blame for depleted fish stocks in coastal waters.
Citing a long tradition of whale meat consumption in South Korea, the country's head envoy to the IWC, Kang Joon Suk, said: "Legal whaling has been strictly banned and subject to strong punishments, though the 26 years have been painful and frustrating for the people who have been traditionally taking whales for food."
The plan drew swift condemnation from anti-whaling nations such as Australia and New Zealand. The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, said she was "very disappointed" by the announcement. "We are completely opposed to whaling, there's no excuse for scientific whaling," she said.
The US said it would take up the matter with the South Korean authorities. "We're concerned about South Korea's announcement that it will begin a lethal scientific research whaling program, and we plan to discuss this with the South Korean government," US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters in Washington.
The World Wildlife Fund said there was no evidence for claims that minke whales were depleting coastal fish stocks, adding that the species is considered endangered.
Patrick Ramage, director of the global whales program at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the proposal was a "backward step. If pursued, this plan will lead to whales from a depleted stock being cruelly slaughtered for no purpose when they already face more threats than ever before. We strongly urge Korea to abandon this plan now."
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Before the 1986 ban, South Korea said it caught about 600 whales a year, with most of the meat consumed domestically. It currently sells whale meat from animals it says are accidentally caught in fishing nets.
South Korean media reports suggest a recent rise in demand for the delicacy may be behind its controversial move at the IWC this week. The number of restaurants serving whale meat in Ulsan, a southeastern city and the spiritual home of the country's whale industry, has increased four-fold to more than 100 in the past year, according to the Korea Times.
That's the biggest number since the IWC ban was introduced and, the paper reports, is being fueled in part by the lucrative illegal trade in whale meat.