SORRENTO, Italy -- Japan lost a key vote in its bid to have an 18-year ban on commercial whaling overturned when its motion to hold secret balloting at this week's International Whaling Commission meeting was rejected Monday.
Environmentalists accused Japan of using development aid to swell the number of nations in the pro-whaling bloc, a charge the Japanese delegation denied.
Japan, the world's prime consumer of whale meat, and other pro-whaling countries such as Norway and Iceland, say whales are overeating the world's fish and must be killed to prevent the continued decline of global fish stocks.
An anti-whaling group, in a report presented Monday, debunked that argument, saying most food consumed by marine mammals isn't what fisheries target.
"The study shows that there is nothing to the argument that we could remove marine mammals, especially baleen whales, and feed the world with their food," Daniel Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and an author of the report, told The Associated Press.
"This food that marine mammals consume is essentially taken in areas where we don't fish and consists of animals that we do not exploit."
The report was funded in part by the international arm of The Humane Society of the United States, a member of an anti-whaling coalition of over 140 non-governmental organizations called Whalewatch. It mapped the fisheries of the world and compared them with fish consumption of marine mammals, finding few zones of overlap.
"If the marine mammals were removed it would make no difference for the fisheries," Pauly said.
In its opening statement Monday, Japan asserted: "Many of the whale stocks around Japan are increasing and consuming huge quantities of at least 10 species of fish that are caught by our fishermen."
Japan's bid to have all of this week's votes conducted by secret ballot was rejected 29-24.
Environmentalists applauded the decision, saying it ensured transparency in decision-making by the International Whaling Commission's 57 member countries.
Lifting the 1986 ban on commercial whaling has been the focus of recent Whaling Commission sessions. This year, Japan says it might consider pulling out of the group if the ban is not overturned.
With a three-fourths majority required to overturn the moratorium, many expect the ban will stay in place.
"The anti-whaling nations simply don't want to lift the moratorium, and as they have enough votes to block any lifting, the ban will stay in place," said the High North Alliance, which includes hunters from Canada, Iceland, Norway and other countries.
The High North Alliance says there is enough scientific evidence that several whale stocks can be hunted in a sustainable way, including minke whales, the smallest of the baleen whales at about 30 feet.
Pro-whaling countries are close to winning the balance of power within the commission -- a result, environmentalist groups say, of what they call Japan's vote-buying technique.
The World Wildlife Fund and other environmentalist groups say Japan is misusing development aid to manipulate the votes of developing countries. The WWF says the pro-whaling bloc has grown steadily in the past years -- from nine in 2000 to 21 in 2003. This year it is forecast at 27.
WWF says among additions to the pro-whaling bloc is Mongolia, which does not have a coastline. Greenpeace lists Suriname, Tuvalu, Mauritania and Ivory Coast as other recent additions.
"This is a clear case of 'money talks,' and it's happening in front of us. It is time we put a stop to this ongoing vote-buying, before it's too late," said John Frizell of Greenpeace International.
Japan denied the accusation, saying in a statement that it has "fisheries relationships" with many nations. "When we have a chance to discuss the IWC situation with those nations, they are often more prepared to understand our position."
The International Whaling Commission, created in 1946 with the purpose of proper conservation of whale stocks and the orderly development of the whaling industry, has become polarized in recent years.
Japan and other pro-whaling countries accuse the organization of straying from its mission of supervising -- not dismantling -- the whaling industry.
In its opening remarks, Tokyo insisted the total protection of whales is contradictory to "the cultural values of people of Japan and other countries that view whales as a valuable food resource."
"It is a very critical time," said Joji Morishita, a Japanese delegate. "There will be a lot of dispute at discussions. If we cannot get out of this meeting with some kind of rebuilding of trust, the commission will face a really difficult time."
On the Net:
International Whaling Commission, www.iwcoffice.org
The Humane Society of the United States, www.hsus.org
Associated Press Writer Alfred de Montesquiou in London contributed to this report.