Japan has suspended its first humpback whale hunt in seas off Antarctica since the 1960s, its government said yesterday, backing down in an escalating international battle over the expansion of its hunt.
Japan dropped the planned taking of 50 humpbacks at the behest of the United States, which chairs the International Whaling Commission (IWC), said Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura. He said the suspension would last a year or two but that there would be "no changes" to Japan's stance on research whaling itself.
Japan dispatched its whaling fleet last month to the southern Pacific in the first major hunt of humpback whales since the 1960s, generating widespread criticism. Officials said yesterday they had not harpooned any humpbacks.
The move defuses for now a high-profile row with Australia, though Japanese officials deny they were influenced by Canberra's anti-whaling position. Australia announced on Wednesday that it would dispatch surveillance planes and a ship to gather evidence for a possible legal challenge to the hunt.
It was unlikely, however, to quell the increasingly bold high-seas protests against Japan's scientific whaling research programme, in which it kills 1,000 whales, mostly minkes, a year in the Pacific. Japan has wrestled with the IWC for years to overturn its 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.
The decision followed talks between Japan and the US, said Hideki Moronuki, chief of the Fisheries Agency's whaling division. The US State Department had warned Japan that some anti-whaling nations could boycott IWC meetings, he said.
Commercial hunts of humpbacks – which were nearly harpooned to extinction in the 20th century – were banned in the Southern Pacific in 1963, and that ban was extended worldwide in 1966.
The decision to call off the hunt was welcomed by anti-whaling nations. "While this is a welcome move, the Australian government strongly believes that there is no credible justification for the hunting of any whales," the Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, adding that it would continue with its surveillance plans.
Karli Thomas, who is leading a Greenpeace expedition heading to the Southern Pacific, also welcomed the development. "This is good news indeed, but it must be the first step towards ending all whaling in the Southern Ocean, not just one species for one season," she said.
Merry Christmas, you guys.