LONDON - As the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) drew to a close Friday, animal welfare campaigners warned that the moratorium on commercial whaling could begin to unravel as early as next year.
Much of the IWC's week-long session at a west London hotel was given up to furious debate on whether the 15-year ban on commercial whaling should be withdrawn.
And although calls to reduce the level of protection given to whales, led by Japan, fizzled out, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) warned Friday that the fight was not over.
Karen Stuer, IFAW's commercial trade and exploitation program director, said: "The whalers are closer than ever to destroying the ban, and at worst we have a year left to save it."
Japan has pledged to reintroduce the debate next year when the IWC meets in Japan for the commission's 2002 annual meeting.
Campaigners fear that a vote buying policy initiated by the Tokyo government is close to securing majority support for a resumption of full-scale commercial whaling.
Masayuku Komatsu, head of the Japanese Fisheries Agency, last week admitted that Tokyo grants overseas aid to developing nations in return for support in the IWC.
Backing from Caribbean islands at this week's meeting allowed Japan to scupper efforts to create a whale sanctuary in the South Pacific.
But with suggestions this week that Tokyo might recruit as many as 10 more nations in coming months, it is likely that Japan will command majority support when it hosts the IWC next year.
Within a few short years Japan could have the three quarters support necessary to overturn the ban.
Two police officers watch protesters with their giant inflatable whale outside a hotel in London, Monday July 23, 2001, where the International Whaling Commission is holding their 53rd annual meeting. Japan and Norway are leading an effort to force an end to the moratorium on industrial whaling, approved by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. (AP Photo/Richard Lewis)
IFAW, the world's largest animal welfare organization, believes that next year's meeting could see the start of the unraveling of global whale protection agreements.
It is now calling on conservation minded governments to fight back.
Steuer said: "Japan has not got this far through the strength of its argument but instead through the strength of its currency.
"If Japan does command a majority in the IWC next year it would use that position to attack the ban at every opportunity.
"Together with Norway it would seek to overturn the moratorium, or at the very least to reduce its effectiveness."
She added: "It's time the world woke up and fought back."
Japan and Norway exploit loopholes in the 15-year-old ban to kill more than one thousand whales each year.
They hope to have the ban lifted entirely, opening the way to a return to full scale commercial whaling.
Copyright © 2001 AFP