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By Shane Green Japan Correspondent

TOKYO, Japan (April 30 2002 - The Age)---The prospects for a South Pacific whale sanctuary seem slim, with conservationists believing Japan has secured enough support to defeat the proposal.

Australia and New Zealand are making a renewed attempt to win support for the sanctuary from the International Whaling Commission, which has just begun its month-long annual meeting in the old Japanese whaling port of Shimonoseki.

But the conservation group Greenpeace Australia said yesterday that Japan appeared to have won enough support to defeat the proposal, by buying the votes of IWC member states.

"The outlook's pretty bleak," Greenpeace oceans campaigner Vanessa Atkinson said yesterday.

"The Japanese Fisheries Agency has been really aggressive with its vote-buying initiative, and now it's starting to reap the rewards of that. We're seeing increasing reports from Japan of bureaucrats from the Fisheries Agency saying how close they are to winning a majority supporting pro-whaling in the IWC."

For the past three years, Australia and New Zealand have failed in their attempts to win support for the sanctuary, last year falling short by only a handful of votes of the 75 percent majority required.

This year, the countries have presented new material to support their case in an agenda paper distributed through the IWC and posted on its website.

[SEE: IWC: 54th Annual Meeting, Shimonoseki, Japan, May 2002 at]

It argues that great whale populations in the South Pacific remain seriously depleted, and a sanctuary would protect the whales and allow recovery.

Last year's meeting of the IWC ended in controversy, after proposals for the South Pacific sanctuary and a South Atlantic whale haven were defeated.

The then environment minister, Robert Hill, warned that the future of the IWC was threatened by aggressive lobbying, although he stopped short of accusing Japan of buying votes through aid. At last year's IWC meeting, several poor countries, including six Caribbean nations, voted with Japan and Norway, the other aggressively pro-whaling nation.

Greenpeace fears that Japan is close to obtaining a simple majority on the IWC. That could lead to the commission passing resolutions supporting Japan's limited whale hunt for "scientific" research, and introducing secret ballots.

While it might obtain a simple majority, Japan would need 75 percent of the vote to have the 1986 ban on commercial whaling overturned.

Although Japan wants the ban lifted, it has also asked for an increase in the number of whales it catches for research.

Japan says one of the aims of its research is to study the impact of the consumption of fish by whales on commercial fishing. The meat from whales caught is later sold on the Japanese market.

For additional reports from The Age, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Age.

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