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Japan to drop humpback whale hunt in seas off Antarctica
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    TOKYO — Japan is dropping its plan to kill humpback whales in the seas off Antarctica, the country’s top government spokesman said Friday.
    Japan decided to suspend humpback hunts at the request of the United States, which is currently chair of the International Whaling Commission, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura.
    ‘‘The government has decided to suspend hunts of humpback whales while talks to normalize IWC is taking place,’’ Machimura said. ‘‘But there will no changes to our stance on our research whaling itself.’’
    ‘‘The U.S. asked Japan to freeze planned humpback hunts’’ for one to two years to support its effort as the chairman to normalize the IWC, Machimura said.
    ‘‘We applaud Japan’s decision as an act of goodwill toward the International Whaling Commission,’’ said U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. ‘‘Japan has listened intently to the concerns surrounding their hunt and the special significance whales have in many cultures.’’
    Japan argues that the IWC has become a place for emotional fights rather the setting for calm discussion, and has called for ‘‘normalizing’’ reforms that would return it to that function.
    Japan dispatched its whaling fleet last month to the southern Pacific in the first major hunt of humpback whales since the 1960s, generating widespread criticism.
    Commercial hunts of humpbacks have been banned worldwide since 1966.
    ‘‘Given that in a sense this seems to be a problem of differences in national sentiment between Japanese and Australian culture, it’s not a matter that can be solved by appealing to one another through logic,’’ Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura told reporters.
    Australia announced this week it was launching a new push to stop Japan’s annual whale hunt, including sending surveillance planes and a ship to gather evidence for a possible international legal challenge.
    Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called Japan’s suspension of hunts ‘‘a welcome move’’ and reiterated his government’s position that ‘‘there is no credible justification for the hunting of any whales.’’ Smith said Australia would continue with its surveillance plans.
    Smith and Komura spoke by telephone Friday, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, with Smith saying the problem is not just humpback hunts and Komura justifying Japan’s research whaling.
    On Wednesday, Thomas Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, said a deal may have been struck to suspend Japan’s plans to hunt 50 humpback whales in Antarctic waters.
    The mission also aims to take as many as 935 minke whales and up to 50 fin whales in what Japan’s Fisheries Agency says is its largest-ever scientific whale hunt.
    Critics say the program is a shield for Japan to keep its whaling industry alive until it can overturn a 1986 ban on commercial whaling.
    Karli Thomas, who is leading a Greenpeace expedition heading to the southern Pacific, lauded the development.
    ‘‘This is good news indeed, but it must be the first step towards ending all whaling in the southern ocean, not just one species for one season,’’ Thomas said in a statement from on board the group’s ship, Esperanza.
    Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.

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