TOKYO/LONDON - Japan's ruthless push for the return of commercial whaling received a significant setback yesterday when pressure from green campaigners forced five big food companies to pull out of supporting the Japanese whaling industry.
The five firms, led by Japanese seafood giant Nissui and its wholly-owned US frozen foods subsidiary Gortons, said they will divest their total one-third share in Japan's largest operator of whaling ships, Kyodo Senpaku. Nissui owns 50 per cent of shares in New Zealand food processing company Sealord.
The move follows months of campaigning by environmental cyber-activists who sent thousands of emails to the firms demanding they end their support for the industry.
It could not come at a more vital moment, as 2006 is shaping up to be the most critical year for the great whales since the international whaling moratorium was brought in twenty years ago.
The world's largest mammals, many of them endangered species, face a double threat in the coming months.
More than 2,000 - the highest number for a generation - are being slaughtered by the three countries continuing whaling in defiance of world opinion, Japan, Norway and Iceland.
And in a crucial political move, this year the pro-whaling nations look likely to achieve their first majority of votes in whaling's regulatory body, the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
This will be the result of a remorseless diplomatic campaign by Japan to get small developing countries to join the IWC and vote in its favour, by offering them substantial aid.
Over the past six years, at least 14 nations have been recruited to the IWC as Japan's supporters, most of which have no whaling tradition. Some of the newcomers, such as Mongolia and Mali, do not even have a coastline.
A majority was expected at last year's meeting in Korea, but one of the new member countries, Gambia, inexplicably failed to turn up.
At this year's meeting in St Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies in June, a majority is much more likely to be secured.
A 51 per cent majority will not secure the scrapping of the 1986 moratorium - that needs a majority of 75 per cent - but it will be a huge propaganda coup for the whaling nations, and will enable them to bring in other measures, such as voting in secret, which may well bring the crucial majority nearer.
In these circumstances, yesterday's decision by the five firms to pull out of supporting Japan's whaling activities takes on even more significance.
As well as Gorton's, which is one of America's largest frozen seafood companies and sells to McDonalds restaurants and thousands of supermarkets across the US, they include Canada's Bluewater Seafoods.
The companies became the target of an email blizzard.
Environmental activists say the intensity of the campaign is a breakthrough in online protest, driving the firms' whaling connections near the top of some search engines when consumers went looking for information about their products.
"After only a few months of consumer protest, the fragile commercial interest in whaling has collapsed," said Shane Rattenbury of Greenpeace International on the organisation's website.
"Whaling is bad for business."
Nissui denies it has succumbed to pressure and says it is merely transferring shares to "public interest corporations".
A terse notice on the website of the Institute of Cetacean Research, the key organization behind Japan's whaling programme, said simply that the "composition" of Kyodo Senpaku would be changed to 'better reflect our activities."
It added: "We are committed to redouble our efforts to promoting sustainable utilization of whale resources."
Since the worldwide commerical whaling ban, Japan has engaged in what it calls "scientific whaling" despite intense criticism from its political allies and international environmental groups.
Japan's fleet of eight ships, seven of which are owned by Kyodo Senpaku, is legally allowed to hunt about 1,000 whales a year for "research purposes" and, since the ban, has killed over 5,000 minke whales, which Japan's Fisheries Ministry claims are no longer in danger of extinction.
The Japanese whaling industry recently sparked outrage when it emerged that whale meat was ending up in pet food in some parts of the country.
"This is a gorgeous example of the power of consumers in today's globalised markets," said Adele Major of the Greenpeace International web team. "We've moused them into submission."