fishing boat 88.
(photo credit: )
Once, it was "Call me Ishmael." Now the catchphrase is "Calling Israel."
In a modern-day whaling drama, the Jewish state could cast the deciding ballot Friday in its first vote as a member of the International Whaling Commission.
While fishing for votes this spring, the United States reeled in Israel as an ally to back whale-hunting limits. But Israel's stance will be put to the test when a series of polls are held at the IWC's annual meeting this weekend in St. Kitts and Nevis.
Japan has been lobbying for whaling quotas to be raised and has collected a string of supporters to oppose the anti-whaling bloc, led by the US and Australia. Observers now say that the sides are evenly split, meaning that Israel - whose formal policy hasn't yet been articulated - could cast a deciding vote.
"Israel is an environmentally conscious country and we'll be voting according to our position on the issues. We have very strict laws regarding whaling in the Mediterranean," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, who noted that Israel had outlawed the practice. He stopped short of declaring outright which way Israel would be voting.
The IWC, an international organization dedicated to managing whaling and protecting the world's largest mammals, has banned whaling for all but scientific purposes since 1986.
Japan and Iceland have used this provision to continue killing whales, selling the meat after conducting scientific tests. Norway, the only other whaling country, hunts whale commercially in defiance of the non-binding IWC ban.
"We take the position that marine life resources, including whales, are very important resources for food, which should be used on a sustainable basis," an official at Japan's embassy in Israel said, adding that Japan believes that "certain kinds of whales are abundant enough to allow for sustainable catching, such as Mink whales."
Raquel Shaoul of Tel Aviv University's Asian Studies department noted that Japan's ties to whales are primarily cultural. "There is a very long tradition of eating this food," she said, adding that while whale meat was once a vital source of nutrients, it is no longer a necessary part of the modern Japanese diet.
The Japanese Embassy could not immediately provide economic figures on Japan's whaling industry, but the official said that very few people are employed by the whaling sector.
Greenpeace, which is fighting against relaxing the moratorium on commercial whaling, argues that the money brought in by whale-watching and other forms of tourism far exceeds the revenue from fishing the endangered animals.
The number of whales killed annually has hovered above 1,000 since the year 2000, according to Greenpeace.
"The international community has been very upset with Japan and its practice of continuing [whale] hunting," Shaoul said.
She added that Israel's bilateral relationship with Japan was based on shared hi-tech and investment interests, so she didn't expect there to be much diplomatic fallout should Israel go against the East Asian powerhouse.
And Regev said, "I'm sure all of Israel's friends and allies will understand our vote, which stems from our strong environmental record."
"The ties between Japan and Israel are very strong. I can only hope that Israel takes the same position we do," the Japanese Embassy official indicated.
But Ido Gideon of Greenpeace's Israel office said he expected Israel to support the environmental organization's stance. Greenpeace activists in St. Kitts and Nevis were initially "very pessimistic" about how the votes would go, he said. "Now that Israel is attending, it's starting to look like we have a critical mass to stop this."