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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, June 2) – The Marshall Islands decision to join the International Whaling Commission just days before a crucial vote for lifting a commercial whaling ban has put it on a political hot seat, with two of its biggest Pacific allies lobbying hard for its vote.

Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell flew to Majuro for the day Wednesday to lobby island leaders to vote against lifting the ban, which he said has allowed the endangered whale populations to begin regenerating in the Pacific and has in turn spawned multi-million dollar tourist industries in Australia, Tonga and elsewhere.

But the Marshall Islands is reportedly being lobbied hard by Japan, its third largest aid donor behind the United States and Taiwan, to vote in support of lifting the ban to allow commercial whaling. President Kessai Note and Foreign Minister Gerald Zackios last week attended a summit of Pacific leaders in Japan, at which Japan announced it will inject US$400 million in aid to its Pacific allies over the next three years.

Campbell said aid issues should not be linked to the whaling vote. Island countries "should negotiate as sovereign nations" and not be swayed by Japanese aid. "Australia provides money for sustainable development and humanitarian welfare," he said. "We don’t give money and say if you don’t vote this way there’ll be no aid."

Campbell said the vote at the International Whaling Commission meeting in St. Kitts in two weeks will be razor close, with the result likely to hinge on one or two votes. "Right now, we’re likely to fail to keep the ban in place," he said. This has motivated Campbell to fly to three Pacific nations — Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Vanuatu — in two days to meet with leaders seeking their support for maintaining the ban on commercial whaling.

"The Marshall Islands and Kiribati have the responsibility for sustainable use of their marine resources and globally they have the job not just for the people living here now, but for the next generation," he said.

The world halted the "unsustainable and inexplicable practice of whaling from hundreds of years ago" at the end of the last century, Campbell said. "It will be a huge tragedy if this is overturned at St. Kitts."

The Marshall Islands is not a member yet, but government officials have indicated their intention to join. After meeting with acting foreign minister Mattlan Zackhras and justice minister Donald Capelle Wednesday, Campbell said the ministers told him that the Cabinet has not met to discuss its stand on whaling and has not even decided if it will attend the meeting in St. Kitts.

"They realize this story has two sides," Campbell said in reference to Japanese lobbying efforts after meeting Marshalls’ leaders.

Campbell said the international spotlight will be on the small Pacific island nations at the International Whaling Commission meeting in mid-June. "In my view, it will be quite unusual to see Pacific nations with strong futures in marine protection potentially lining up to undermine one of the greatest ecological developments of the 20th century," he said.

But while emphasizing the environmental and humanitarian benefits of the whaling ban, Campbell said that for Australia and other Pacific islands, there is a clear and growing financial link to protecting whales.

"We’ve gone from zero to about 3,000 whales on Australian coasts," he said. "A US$300 million (tourist) industry has been built on this in the last 15 years."

Tonga now has an expanding whale-watching industry that is contributing to the local economy, and other islands could see similar developments, he said. But Tonga’s still-fragile whale population could be decimated by commercial whaling by the Japanese, he said. "Eco-based tourism may not be the savior but it is an opportunity for some islands," he said. Growing whale populations "could form the basis of future tourism in the region."

June 2, 2006

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