Australia conceded yesterday it may be a few votes short of victory in a campaign to extend a moratorium on commercial whaling at an international conference this month.
But after lobbying tiny South Pacific island nations this week, Environment Minister Ian Campbell said the Solomon Islands had vowed to abstain from voting on an expected Japanese motion to end the commercial whaling ban.
A separate push by Japan to expand its current research whaling program -- in which hundreds of whales are killed each year -- will also be on the agenda of the International Whaling Commission when it meets in Ulsan, South Korea, on June 20-24.
Campbell has been leading an Australian push to block a resumption of commercial whaling, and wants to turn the IWC into a conservation organization with the establishment of a Southern Ocean whale sanctuary.
He has made a whirlwind visit to the Solomon Islands and the tiny island nations of Kiribati and Tonga to make his case.
"I think the cold hard reality is that there is still one or two votes in this, that will be the situation," he said. "We won't really know the answer until we get to Korea next week."
The US has urged Japan to end its research whaling program and warned that any expansion of the program would be unacceptable, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this month. NOAA is the US government's scientific research and whale management agency.
NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said Japanese whalers already kill about 800 of the maritime mammals each year, and US specialists have noted signs that a significant increase is planned.
Japan began killing whales for what it describes as "research" in 1987 in the Southern Ocean and in the North Pacific. Japan unilaterally issues itself an annual quota of more than 800 whales including minke, sei, Bryde's and sperm whales.
Australia and other anti-whaling countries condemn research whaling as a guise for commercial whaling. The commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, but countries such as Japan and Norway still catch hundreds of whales each year and are hoping for international support for plans to substantially expand their hunts.
Pro-whaling countries are close to having a voting majority on the 57-member commission for the first time since the commercial ban was imposed. The commission might pass resolutions supporting Japan's research whaling program, or the resumption of limited commercial kills. A complete lifting of the ban is unlikely, since that would require the approval of three-fourths of the members.