SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Pro-whaling nations are expected to take control of the International Whaling Commission when it gathers this week, giving those who favor whaling a majority for the first time since a 1986 ban on the practice.
The expected shift to a pro-whaling majority comes after years of lobbying by Japan to get developing nations to join the IWC. Environmental groups accuse developing nations of voting with Japan in exchange for aid — which Japan denies.
Delegates from 70 nations will attend the annual meeting that starts Friday in the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Countries that have joined the IWC this year are Cambodia, Guatemala, Israel and the Marshall Islands.
The 1986 ban was a major victory for environmentalists in protecting several species that were near extinction after centuries of whaling. Pro-whaling nations argue populations have risen.
Raphael Archibald, a spokesman for the St. Kitts delegation, said the focus should shift from strict conservation to sustainable fishing and whaling.
"There are stocks of whales that are very abundant. What's the idea of having them just there, increasing, increasing and increasing," he said.
Pro-whaling countries would need a 75 percent majority to repeal the ban — considered unlikely — but a simple majority will allow them to make significant changes.
"They'll be able to control the voice of the IWC and make statements under the organization's banner in support of commercial whaling," said Bill Hogarth, head of the U.S. delegation, which votes with anti-whaling countries like Australia and New Zealand.
In the Caribbean, Japan has given six countries — St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Antigua, Dominica, Grenada and St. Kitts — more than $100 million in fishing aid since 1998. Most of them have backed Japan on whaling.
The meeting will be a fight for "the heart and soul" of the IWC, said Vassili Papastavrou, a whale biologist for the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"It will be in the hands of the whalers for the first time since the 1970s," he said. "It's like putting the fox in charge of the hen house."
Both Japan and Iceland use a loophole to kill whales for scientific research — which critics call a sham — and sell the carcasses. Norway is the only country that ignores the moratorium and openly conducts commercial whaling. Tribal groups conduct whaling under IWC rules that allow them to hunt the sea mammals for subsistence.
Iceland, Norway and Japan have killed 2,500 whales in the past 12 months, more than in any year since the ban went in effect twenty years ago.
Although eating whale meat is considered a tradition in the three countries — in Japan fast food places serve whale burgers — critics have said most of the meat sits hanging in freezers.
At last year's meeting in South Korea, conservationists claimed victory after defeating votes called by Japan to repeal the ban.
Top on the agenda for the new pro-whaling majority will likely be a push for secret ballots, Papastavrou said.
"They want to make decisions in the dark because their support of whale hunting policies will not stand public scrutiny," he said.
St. Kitts' Archibald said secret ballots are needed to protect countries from those who disagree with their votes. St. Kitts typically votes for whale hunting but could see its tourism industry hurt for its stance.
"We have had threats of boycotts. People book dozens of hotel rooms and cancel them at the last minute," Archibald said, adding that tourism was key to the country's economy.
The meeting runs through June 20.