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Whaling commission seeks to avoid quotas split

Funchal — The organisation that regulates world whaling opened a crucial conference on Monday with leaders seeking to avoid a disastrous split over hunting the marine mammals.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference on the Portuguese island of Madeira faces demands to resume the hunting of whales, protected by a moratorium dating back to 1986 with some exceptions limited by quota.

But environmentalists want the IWC with 85 member states to fend off intense lobbying from states with commercial interests, amid a new attempt to find a compromise on the issue after years of deadlock.

Regardless of the moratorium, almost 40,000 whales have been killed worldwide since 1985 by countries which refuse to sign up to the IWC treaty, or say they are conducting scientific research or sustaining aboriginal communities.

"I am conscious that it will be hard to achieve an agreement on all remaining issues that affect the IWC," Portuguese Environment Minister Francisco Nunes Correia told the opening session of the body’s 61st conference.

"But I very much hope that the progress made during this meeting will be an important contribution towards the construction of a fair and balanced agreement to be hopefully reached in IWC/62," to be held in 2010.

IWC head William Hogarth told journalists he hoped to see the conference agree to extend talks begun by a panel in 2008 for another year — but they could not go on longer, he warned.

"I don’t think that people are willing to wait more than one year," he said. "If we don’t have answers by 2010, I think a lot of countries will be looking for another way to solve this."

The working party set up, at the last conference in Santiago, was charged with drawing up an interim deal on the most urgent disputes — including the definition of scientific, or "lethal research" purposes.

Hogarth said the main stumbling block was his proposal to let Japan resume commercial whaling off its coast in exchange for a cut in its so-called scientific whaling in the Antarctic.

Australia and Japan, arch foes on whaling, have both publicly rejected the compromise.

A member of Japan’s delegation to the conference spoke in favour of another year’s extension to the negotiations.

"We hope that we will reach a consensus within the IWC to continue our efforts for one more year" to reach a deal "for the normalisation of the IWC," said Japanese lawmaker Yoshimasa Hayashi.

He hoped the extension would be the last one, he added.

Japan, which says whaling is part of its culture, kills more than 1,000 whales a year through a loophole in the treaty that allows the ocean giants to be killed for research, although the meat still ends up on dinner tables.

While Norway and Iceland defy the moratorium altogether, Japan’s whaling is especially controversial as much of the hunt takes place in the Antarctic Ocean despite protests by Australia and New Zealand and harassment by eco-militants.

Hogarth, who is also the US delegate to the IWC, is heading his last IWC conference after a three-year term. He has warned that global whale stocks are "in bad shape."

In 2007, Hogarth succeeded in persuading Japan not to start killing humpback whales, beloved by Australian and New Zealand whale-watchers. But he says anti-whaling nations should set a more realistic goal of limiting rather than ending Japan’s catch.

Iceland, which envisages applying to join the European Union, has significantly raised its self-imposed quotas for this year in a move condemned by countries including Britain, France, Germany and the United States.

Greenland also plans to increase its permitted quotas for humpback subsistence whaling, which has drawn protests from environmentalists.

Some 20 campaigning groups have called on the IWC to reject Greenland’s request for an annual quota of 10 humpback whales — a highly protected species, according to the release from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).

Thomas Cabral/AFP/Expatica