Pacific Beat

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Cetacean Conservation
War of the Whales
For creatures that do nothing more offensive than inhale plankton and emit eerie Kenny G. imitations, whales have an odd knack for making people angry. The latest victims of whale rage are officials from Australia, New Zealand and Japan, who, in the run-up to this week's International Whaling Commission meeting in London, have been trading verbal uppercuts over their differing conceptions of whale love. The antipodeans love to watch whales, and want a whale sanctuary in the South Pacific. The Japanese love to eat whales, and want an end to the global ban on commercial whaling.

The snarls began when Masayuki Komatsu, the head of Japan's fisheries agency, told abc-tv that his country used aid offers to win developing nations' support in IWC ballots. At last year's meeting, the votes of six Caribbean states-and the absence of the aid-hungry Solomon Islands-helped Japan and Norway block the sanctuary proposal. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who has long accused Japan of "checkbook diplomacy," said "this confirmation of Japan's tactics shows the desperate lengths it will go to to maintain whaling."

Australian Environment Minister Robert Hill was pulling his punches, saying only that "with Japan and Norway working against it," the plan to protect whales in their Pacific breeding grounds would be "very hard" to achieve. But Japan's IWC delegate, Minoru Morimoto, said the sanctuary proposal had no scientific basis, and that if Hill insisted on opposing whaling "in the face of abundant stocks," then "he should take his government out of the [IWC]." That, or acquire a taste for whale meat.
-Elizabeth Feizkhah

Candidate Shuffle
In Fiji's Election, the Politicians Come and Go
Call it the season of non-sequels. all the political stars who have most fascinated Fijians in recent years are back for the August election campaign-even if it's just to say goodbye. Sitiveni Rabuka, whose successful 1987 coup catapulted him to seven years as elected Prime Minister, has said he won't be available to stand for the Presidency; he'll be busy working for racial harmony. George Speight, who in May last year led a sequel to Rabuka's coup, and has since helped build his own jail on Nukulau Island, was listed as a Conservative Alliance candidate. But last week the party dropped him, citing concern that his imminent treason trial might prevent his taking a seat in the House.

Labour Party leader and ex-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who was taken hostage by Speight and then sacked for being unable to do his job, is standing for re-election-and looks increasingly likely to emerge as the most popular candidate. But military chief Frank Bainimarama is on record as saying Fiji "cannot be allowed to revert to the pre­19 May 2000 status." The Army has denied that that means overruling election results, but constitutional lawyer Sir Vijay Singh said: "They will never allow Mr. Chaudhry to be Prime Minister." Which may rule out that sequel, too.

Tarmac Tourists
Off the air
Though widely imagined as paradise, tiny Pacific islands can seem something else entirely to those stranded on them by disrupted air services. At week's end, it was nearly a month since Air Nauru's only plane-a Boeing 737-was grounded in Melbourne with engine trouble. The airline's chief executive, Ken McDonald, says the problem is purely technical, but others say it is really Air Nauru's desperate cash shortage. With no spare engines, the carrier needs Qantas to fix the broken one, at a cost of about $A3.5 million. But a wary Qantas wants to see the money up front. Counters McDonald: "We are paying our bills-maybe a bit late, but that's it."

By Friday, most of the stranded travelers had been rescued by special Air Pacific flights, and McDonald told TIME he expected Air Nauru's plane to be flying again within days. The airline's future is bright, he added: "My job is to restructure it, possibly by increasing our fleet to two." But industry analysts forecast turbulence for all small Pacific carriers, as high fuel prices and a strong $US increase costs and regional instability deters tourists. There'll be fewer still thanks to the latest debacle, which has some victims vowing never again to explore the simple joys of the Pacific. -Daniel Williams