By SIMON COLLINS, science reporter
New Zealand diplomats are gearing up for intense lobbying in the South Pacific to counter alleged Japanese efforts to "buy votes" for commercial whaling.
Japan is alleged to have offered to help Tonga rebuild a hospital in Nuku'alofa if the island kingdom supports a bid by Japan and other whaling nations to overturn the world whaling moratorium in force since 1986.
Tongan MPs have proposed resuming what they describe as limited, traditional whaling of up to 24 whales a year.
The Solomon Islands, one of only two Pacific Island nations that have joined the International Whaling Commission, is also being lobbied.
The Micronesian state of Palau joined the commission last year with the small African nations Benin and Gabon and landlocked Mongolia. All four voted with Japan at last year's commission meeting.
New Zealand's new representative on the commission, former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, said NZ was "engaged in fairly extensive diplomatic efforts to get other nations to join" the commission. But small island states were put off by the membership fee and the cost of attending meetings.
A former secretary of the International Whaling Commission, Dr Ray Gambell, was in Auckland yesterday starting an Australasian lecture tour funded by the World Council of Whalers to urge an end to the moratorium.
Glenn Hema Inwood, a Wellington-based public relations adviser to the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission and Japan's pro-whaling Institute of Cetacean Research, organised the visit.
He said the Tongan Parliament voted by "consensus" last June to explore ways to resume whaling.
But the NZ-born owner of a whalewatching operation on the Tongan island of Vava'u, Allan Bowe, told the Herald from Tonga that the vote was taken when few MPs were present and that it had not yet had any effect.
He said Tongan Cabinet ministers had assured him that there was no link between the rumoured Japanese offer of a new hospital and the push for resumed whaling.
He was stunned, however, when he attended a regional marine mammals conservation meeting in Samoa two weeks ago and saw that the Tongan Government representative was a Japanese aid official.
The head of the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland, Melino Maka, said he was concerned about the rumoured aid-for-whales deal and had lobbied Tongan ministers against it.
However, Dr Gambell said the moratorium effectively left whaling unregulated, with Japan licensing its own whalers to catch 440 minke whales a year in Antarctic waters for "scientific" purposes. He said it would be better to allow whaling under agreed limits within countries' exclusive economic zones.
What's at stake
* Most large species of whales were almost wiped out in the 200 years up to 1986, when a worldwide whaling moratorium took effect.
* The population of the last numerous species, the smaller Southern Hemisphere minke whale, was estimated in the 1980s at 760,000.
* The International Whaling Commission has now revised its estimate to between 40 and 50 per cent of the earlier figure.
* Japan catches 440 minke whales a year in Antarctic waters and 150 in the North Pacific for "scientific" purposes. Norway catches 650 whales in its coastal waters.
* A Japanese proposal to resume commercial whaling was rejected by 25 votes to 16 at last year's Whaling Commission meeting in Shimonoseki, Japan.