Japan today agreed to abandon plans to slaughter endangered humpback whales for the next one to two years amid calls from Australia to spare the species during a research hunt in the Antarctic.
Nobutaka Machimura, Japan's top government spokesman, confirmed that the Japanese fleet, now en route to the southern ocean whale sanctuary, would avoid killing humpbacks, a protected species since 1966.
"Japan has decided not to catch humpback whales for one year or two, but there will be no change in our stance on research whaling," he told reporters. "Japan's relations with Australia could improve, but it depends on how it will see our decision."
Japan's original intention to kill 50 humpbacks, considered the most majestic and athletic of all whales, drew a furious response from Australia, where an estimated 1.5 million tourists take part in whale-watching trips every year.
The humpback population dwindled to just 1,200 in the 1960s, but now stands at between 30,000 and 40,000, according to the American Cetacean Society. The species is listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union.
"The Australian government welcomes the announcement by Japan it will suspend its plan to kill humpback whales this season," a spokesman for the foreign minister, Stephen Smith, told Reuters in Canberra.
"While this is a welcome move, the Australian government strongly believes that there is no credible justification for the hunting of any whales and will vigorously pursue its efforts ... to see an end to whaling by Japan."
Earlier this week Australia's Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, decided to send an armed ship and surveillance aircraft to track the Japanese fleet ahead of a possible legal challenge to the hunt at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Japan's foreign minister, Masahiko Komura, conceded that it would be difficult to bridge the emotional divide with Australia, a close military ally and trading partner.
"Given that in a sense this seems to be a problem of differences in national sentiment between Japanese and Australian culture, it's not a matter that can be solved by appealing to one another through logic," he said. "I hope to discuss possible measures with the Australian foreign minister soon."
The whaling fleet will proceed, however, with plans to slaughter more than 900 minke whales and 50 endangered fin whales during the current research, Japan's biggest ever.
Anti-whaling activists welcomed the volte-face but said their campaign to end all hunting would continue.
"We're obviously delighted that this has happened," Dave Walsh, a Greenpeace spokesman, told the Guardian from the group's ship, the Esperanza. "But we don't think that one particular type of whale should be singled out. We'd like to see an end to the hunt altogether. Remember, Japan is still going to kill about 1,000 other whales this season.
"The pressure from outside has always been there, but if we are going to succeed in canceling this and all future hunts, the pressure needs to come from inside Japan. The writing is on the wall for Japanese whalers, and it is time prime minister [Yasuo] Fukuda took action."
The International Whaling Commission [IWC] banned commercial whaling in 1986 but allows Japan to conduct lethal research. Critics denounce the "scientific" hunts as commercial whaling in disguise because the meat is sold to restaurants and supermarkets, and the profits used to fund future expeditions.
Officials in Tokyo denied Japan had backed down in the face of renewed international pressure.
A foreign ministry spokesman said the decision had been reached earlier this month during talks in Washington between fisheries agency officials and the US, the current chair of the IWC. "Japan is responding to a request from the president of the IWC, who said our cooperation is essential if the IWC is to function normally, and we understand that," he said.
Japan and other pro-whaling nations believe that the regulatory body has been hijacked by conservationists and lost sight of its original purpose: how to manage sustainable whaling.
The foreign ministry said: "Japan is committed to accelerate the process of the normalization of the IWC. Everything that was planned as part of Japan's scientific research whaling activities, including the capture of humpbacks, is, without exception, legal under the IWC framework."
While Japan is ready to discuss reforms to voting and other IWC procedures, a source close to the issue conceded that overturning the 1986 ban, requires a two-thirds majority, would be "practically impossible."
The Esperanza, meanwhile, is expected to arrive in the southern ocean whaling grounds and step up its search for the whaling fleet over the New Year.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007