Will they ever learn?

IWC 2012

Last year’s IWC 63 meeting in Jersey ended in such disarray that one has to wonder how any of the participants manage to gather together the means to return. Yet indeed we will gather again, this time in Panama, to debate the fate of whales once more, and the future of the International Whaling Commission once more. It will not be surprising if a decision is taken to hold Commission meetings every 2nd year rather than annually as has been the case for 63 years. Presumably the work of the Scientific Committee would continue without pause, but the respite from the annual Commission grind would come as a relief to most if agreed.

It’s difficult to know how this meeting will go. Japan’s abusive tactics last year offended so many in the room that real push back is a possibility. Already this year, the South African Chairman has tendered his resignation, something he threatened but didn’t do several times at the last meeting. What this means is that IWC 64 will open with elections of the Chair and also vacant Vice-Chair, a procedure that normally happens at the end rather than the beginning of meetings. How these elections go may provide a hint as to what’s to follow, but immediately afterwards the room will be bathed in the goodwill of the opening welcome by the host nation, no doubt one full of optimism, though given that Panama is a BAG (Buenos Aires Group) member, it could include stern words as well. The Secretary will then do some housekeeping, and the agenda will be introduced and approved. It will be interesting to see whether Japan starts moving its feet during the agenda discussion, as last year it managed to have its favourite “safety at sea” item moved up a whole day, quite enough to divert the meeting on to its own track. Just the same, it seems likely that the morning session will pass quietly enough to instill some hope of an amicable outcome.

Probably after a long lunch, the first substantive agenda item will come to the floor. This is the proposal to establish a South Atlantic Sanctuary for whales, a decade long aspiration of BAG members and many other IWC members as well, but one that has been resolutely opposed by Japan and its allies, including Norway & Iceland. At this point, it’s a fair guess to imagine that the gloves will come off. Last year’s meeting fell apart when BAG members insisted on having a roll call vote on their perfectly reasonable proposal, and the only way the meeting could be salvaged was for the Chair to promise it as the first agenda item this year. It is the first item, but the Chair has gone. So we shall see. If, as can be fully expected, BAG sticks to its guns and insists on holding a vote, the meeting might dissolve into a Private Commissioner’s meeting right away, and given last year, that might last long enough for non-Commissioners to tour the Canal.

Should this initial obstacle be overcome, and the meeting proceed, it will become mired in some very tricky issues, mostly those dealing with Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW). Supposedly, this formal exemption to the Moratorium on commercial whaling is intended to provide aboriginal communities with vital sustenance that would otherwise be unavailable. In practice, it has too often become a sham, and an excuse to continue killing whales in the absence of need. We expect to hear much from Denmark on behalf of Greenland, and from Greenlanders themselves about an increased need for whale meat that requires substantial increases in existing quotas for humpbacks, bowheads, fins and minkes. In actuality, Greenland supplies much of the whale meat to tourists when they dine out, and much of it is openly sold in supermarkets (http://bit.ly/LQDzJw). Both practices are flagrant violations of IWC rules, yet it remains uncertain as to whether the Commission will accede to Greenland’s demands in the face of the deal making that will doubtless accompany the other ASW requests. Of these, the USA once more has its back to the wall, determined as ever to solve a political problem at home (in an election year) by delivering the needs of its Alaskan aboriginal peoples. Very strangely, the US is proposing to bundle its request with those of Russia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The Russian request may have some legitimacy, though serious questions surround it, but the “aboriginal” needs of St. Vincent and the Grenadines amount to a shell game. There is no need, and barely a “tradition” to support the case for continuing the brutal hunt of humpback whales by the so-called “whalers” of this tiny Caribbean nation. Why the US would tie the fate of its native Alaskan peoples to the barbaric butchery of humpback mothers and babies is beyond me.

None of the above excludes the possibility that this meeting can have outcomes that are helpful to whales and the oceans they inhabit. The provisional agenda includes discussion of vital topics such as climate change and ocean noise, both of which are serious issues that threaten the well being of cetaceans. A strong statement by the IWC about the impacts of warming oceans on whales could influence public attitudes and government decisions, but imagining it actually happening involves a trip into dreamland. The warming of the Arctic, now well under way, with ice free Arctic Ocean summers coming within a few short decades, is far more likely to be welcomed by the global oil industry and the governments it controls, including many at the IWC table, than by any real concern for the fate of Arctic life. Also on the agenda, perhaps also as a dreamland exercise, is a resolution by Monaco calling on the United Nations to pay serious attention to the deteriorating circumstances of migratory species of cetaceans that are beyond the control of the IWC, including those living within the Southern Ocean Sanctuary that are now solely subject to decisions made in Japan.

We shall see in the coming days whether Japan has learned enough from its past frustrations to adopt a new approach to its participation in these meetings. Given the success of the bully tactics it adopted in Jersey last year, this seems unlikely. On the other side of the coin, we will find out whether the pro-whale nations, which form a clear majority in this fractured body, are determined enough to once and for all lay waste to Japan’s dream and take command of the fate of whales. Perhaps in Panama at IWC 64, we will be surprised.

There is always hope.

By Paul Spong
June 30 2012

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