ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Japan dropped its opposition Thursday to allow Alaska Eskimos to continue hunting whales.
U.S. Sen. Ted Steven, R-Alaska, said he received a phone call from Ryozo Kato, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, telling him that Japan would no longer oppose Alaska Eskimo whaling.
''Thank God. This is what we have been waiting for,'' said Maggie Ahmaogak, executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. The commission is made up of 10 Alaska villages that represent 7,500 Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos.
The turnaround came after the International Whaling Commission voted late last month to ban the hunting of bowhead whales by Eskimo subsistence hunters. The United States had asked the commission to renew a quota allowing Eskimos to hunt 55 bowhead whales over five years. But the request received 32 votes, one short of allowing the hunts to continue.
The vote came after the United States, Britain and other nations blocked Tokyo-led attempts to lift the IWC's commercial whaling ban. The ban has been in place since 1986.
Now that Japan no longer opposes the hunts, other countries that voted against the subsistence hunts should fall in line, said George Ahmaogak, a whaling captain and mayor of the North Slope Borough, as well as Maggie Ahmaogak's husband.
Maggie Ahmaogak agreed that the change of position by Japan clears the way for the continuation of Alaska Eskimo subsistence whaling.
''That voting block was led by the Japanese,'' she said.
The IWC meets once a year but the vote could be reversed in a special meeting or by mail ballot. It was not immediately clear when that might happen.
The Eskimo Whaling Commission pressured the state and federal government to lobby on its behalf. George Ahmaogak said the commission sought help from members of Congress, as well as the State, Interior and Commerce departments.
It was appropriate that the federal government solve the problem, he said.
''I think our federal government is to blame. Japan after all was trying to initiate their commercial whaling ... and we got caught in that political game,'' he said.
The reaction to the IWC vote reached high levels of state and federal government. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles that he would try to get the decision reversed.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, wrote the chairman of the IWC urging him to try and get IWC members to change their minds before the spring whale hunts next April.
''I'm very pleased that the Japanese government has seen fit to reverse itself, as this opens the door to another vote by the International Whaling Commission,'' Murkowski said in a statement.
Maggie Ahmaogak said the commission hoped all along the problem with the IWC could be resolved. But she said if that was not possible, the commission was working with the Interior Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs on an action plan to protect Alaska Eskimo subsistence whaling rights.
Alaska Eskimos gathered Thursday for a whaling festival in the village of Nuiqsut near the Beaufort Sea coast have more to celebrate now, said George Ahmaogak.
The bowhead whale has been central to Alaska Eskimo culture for thousands of years, he said.
''We are the only people living in this harsh environment,'' Ahmaogak said. ''We need that blubber. It thickens your blood.''
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