WASHINGTON — The United States said Thursday it was prepared to retaliate against Japan with "very strong" measures if Tokyo pressed ahead with a hotly contested whale hunt in the north Pacific.
Over objections from the United States, Britain and leading environmental groups, Japan told Washington last week it would hunt large sperm and Bryde's whales, two species protected under U.S. law. The Japanese already hunt the minke whale.
"We have sent the Japanese a message. We will take very strong action if we find that they are in fact taking sperm and Bryde's whales," Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta told Reuters after a speech Thursday evening.
U.S. officials have said Washington could impose trade sanctions against Japanese fishery products and other goods if any of the protected whales are slaughtered. Mineta said the Japanese whaling fleet was being closely monitored.
Mineta said the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Thomas Foley, delivered his stern warning to Tokyo Monday.
Japan gave up commercial whaling in compliance with an international moratorium in 1986 but has engaged in research whaling since 1987.
The practice has drawn fire from the World Wildlife Fund and anti-whaling nations, who see Japanese research as an end-run around the moratorium because the flesh ends up in the market for human consumption. Japan is the largest consumer of whale meat in the world.
Japan's decision to expand the hunt to include Bryde's and sperm whales outraged the United States and other members of the International Whaling Commission, which passed a resolution urging Japan not to proceed.
According to U.S. officials, no nation has hunted these whale species since 1987, one year after the international moratorium took effect. Both are protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the sperm whale is listed as an endangered species.
Despite appeals last week by President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Japanese fleet set out Saturday for the northwestern Pacific with the goal of hunting 160 minke as well as 50 Bryde's and 10 sperm whales.
Japan's Fisheries Agency said the hunt was being conducted to gather information on the habitat, diet and migration patterns of the whales.
The agency said whales will be killed and their meat sold to local markets, arguing that Bryde's and sperm populations have recovered, so hunting can resume.
The United States opposes all commercial whaling, and has urged Japan to find other, nonlethal ways to conduct research.
Under U.S. law, Mineta will review Japanese actions and make recommendations to the president, who could impose trade sanctions or other retaliatory measures.