FEATURE - South Pacific whale sanctuary bid looks beached

AUSTRALIA: July 18, 2001

SYDNEY - Deep in the South Pacific, migrating whales serenade their mates as they swim to warmer tropical waters to breed, enchanting thousands of whale watchers along the coastal cliff tops of Australia and New Zealand.

But the whale songs won't count for much when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meets in London next week, environmentalists say.

A move by Australia and New Zealand to establish a South Pacific whale sanctuary is again expected to fail, having already been blocked by Japan with the support of six
Caribbean island states at last year's IWC meeting in Australia.

"The chances for the sanctuary look very bleak...almost impossible," said Cassandra Phillips, policy adviser for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which will lobby the
IWC meeting.

The same fate probably awaits a proposal by Brazil to create a southern Atlantic whale
sanctuary.

Australian Environment Minister Robert Hill is not optimistic given that IWC rules require a
three-quarters majority for the sanctuary proposals to pass.

At last year's Adelaide IWC meeting, when the South Pacific sanctuary was first proposed, it was defeated with only 18 nations in favour, 11 against and four abstaining.

"Under the rules of the IWC it is so easily blocked, and we have no reason for confidence there has been any substantial movement from those who voted against our position - so it is very difficult," Hill told Reuters in an interview.

WHALERS GAINING STRENGTH

The IWC has approved two whale sanctuaries to protect feeding grounds in the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean, which lashes Antarctica.

But Japan ignores the sanctuaries and catches 1,000 whales a year under a programme it calls "scientific whaling". But critics say much of the whale meat ends up on restaurant tables or supermarket shelves.

Japan has warned that the continued opposition to commercial whaling by Australia and New Zealand threatens the very existence of the IWC, which was established to regulate whaling.

"Australia and New Zealand should leave their frivolous whale sanctuary proposal at home," Japan said in a recent statement.

Environmentalists fear Japan is getting close to eventually having enough support to overturn a 1986 IWC whaling moratorium.

"We are fearful Japan is looking at loading the IWC with tame countries and then could get a majority to change the rules. They are getting fairly close," said David Butcher,
chief executive of WWF, Australia.

Butcher said Iceland, Russia and Korea may be waiting in the wings to resume commercial whaling if Japan was able to end the moratorium.

WWF and Greenpeace charge Japan with using its large aid budget to coax small countries to vote its way.

"We are very pessimistic on the voting, it looks as though the whalers may be able to count on almost half of the 38 or 40 votes this year, which will make it difficult to get
resolutions criticising the whalers adopted," said Phillips.

WWF said new IWC members Panama and Morocco were expected to vote with Japan, along with Peru if it can pay back dues and become eligible to vote.

While the island states of the Caribbean helped block the new South Pacific whale sanctuary last year, the islands of the Pacific are not even members of the IWC.

Australia has talked with its island neighbours about joining the IWC, but the financial commitment necessary is a burden these economically struggling nations can ill afford.

BOOM IN WHALE WATCHING

But as the economic benefits of whale watching grow, South Pacific island states are
beginning to view the whales as a possible economic lifeline worth protecting.

Global whale watching is worth $1.0 billion, attracting nine million people a year in 87 countries and territories, according to an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) report.

The IFAW said whale watching had grown 40 percent since 1994, citing Africa, Central America and Asia as the three biggest growth areas. Whale watching in Japan has boomed, growing 37.6 percent between 1991 and 1998, and whale hunting nation Norway has seen a 18.8 percent growth in whale watching since 1994.

"We have found that whale watching is making a dramatic economic contribution to tourism and local coastal communities worldwide," said IFAW Asia Pacific Director
Mick McIntyre.

The South Pacific Forum, which represents 16 island states, last year endorsed a proposed whale sanctuary, saying it would not only protect the breeding grounds of
nine species but also spawn whale watching industries in the islands.

Whale watching in Tonga is estimated to contribute $1.0 million a year to the island's economy.

"Whales and marine life have become a focal point for tourism in Tonga today. The more whales we have in our region the better the future for our children," said Tongan lawmaker Samiu Vaipulu.

Story by Michael Perry

REUTERS NEWS SERVICE