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The fate of a 21-year old ban on commercial whaling is at stake. That ban is on the agenda at this week's annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Anchorage, Alaska. Both pro- and anti-whaling forces have been recruiting nations to join the commission. It's an 11th-hour effort to determine whether Japan should be allowed to resume commercial whaling.

Elizabeth Arnold reports.

Unidentified Child #1: It's an airplane.

Unidentified Child #2: An airplane.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: A small plane brightly painted with humpback whales taxies to a stop before a crowd of schoolchildren. Patrick Ramage has flown here from Cape Cod with artwork from kids asking the International Whaling Commission to block Japan from killing more than a thousand whales this season. His 12-year old son Henry is with him.

Mr. HENRY RAMAGE (Son of Patrick Ramage): We are bringing the artwork to the government officials to show them that whaling needs to stop.

ARNOLD: Henry's father Patrick, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is a veteran of these meetings, and he says this time the outcome is too close to call.

Mr. PATRICK RAMAGE (International Fund for Animal Welfare): Japan wants to kill whales. If necessary, they're willing to kill the International Whaling Commission in order to do it. We've seen a multi-year, persistent effort to recruit countries and achieve through the power of Japan's currency what they're unable to achieve with their science or powers of persuasion.

ARNOLD: But Ramage and delegates of anti-whaling nations have done some recruiting of their own. The result has been a sort of an arms race as each side tries to find yet another nation to join and vote their way - Laos, Croatia and Cypress are some of the latest recruits.

Since 1986 the IWC has banned whale hunting with just two exceptions. Nations may take a certain number of whales for scientific research, and aboriginal people are allowed quotas for subsistence purposes.

At last year's IWC meeting, Japan rallied a one-vote majority for a resolution ending the ban. While it was only symbolic, as it takes a three-quarters vote to truly end, Mark Simmonds of the U.K.-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says it sent a dangerous signal.

Mr. MARK SIMMONDS (Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society): So the question is: What is the big signal going to be this year?

ARNOLD: Simmonds explains that the CITES meeting, the body that manages international trade and endangered wildlife, comes right after the IWC meeting.

Mr. SIMMONDS: And the messages that came from the IWC to the CITES meeting are really, really important, because the CITES basically follows the line that the IWC takes. If the IWC is saying we have a moratorium, CITES says okay, well, we'll have an international trade ban in all these whale products.

ARNOLD: Simmonds says last year's vote eroded support for trade restrictions and emboldened nations such as Iceland to commence whaling.

Currently, Japan kills a thousand whales a year under the IWC's scientific research loophole, and this season plans to kill an additional 50 humpback whales, an endangered species.

Joji Morishita, Japan's chief delegate, says his country is misunderstood.

Mr. JOJI MORISHITA (Japanese Whaling Delegation): What we're asking for is limited, regulated whaling for abundant species only. So you don't need to lift the moratorium, and we think that regulations and control is very important.

ARNOLD: At this meeting the commission must also renew or reject a five-year bowhead quota for subsistence whalers. The last time this so-called aboriginal quota was up, Japan tried to block it as leverage for resumption of their own whaling. Morishita says it's only fair to approve both.

Mr. MORISHITA: As long as both of them are utilizing their local resources on a sustainable manner, I don't think there should be any different treatment.

ARNOLD: But anti-whaling nations and groups such as the World Wildlife Fund say subsistent hunting, which involves tiny boats and a limited number of whales, is far different than commercial whaling.

Simmonds of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says with the IWC's membership expanding every day, it's impossible to predict the outcome of either contentious issue.

Mr. SIMMONDS: At the moment, the vote count looks like the pro-conservation side probably just about has the majority, but it completely depends on who is sitting in their seats at a particular time. And it's so close.

ARNOLD: Key votes are planned later this week.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.

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