IWC 66 Day Five
The sands of time
Day Five of this meeting was devoted to Finance and Administration, a normally pedestrian subject, but one that produced unexpected drama. The resolution on providing assistance to countries with limited means came back to the floor in a form that didn’t please a large number of delegations, who thought it needed more work in the intercessional period before the next meeting in 2018. It did please Japan, which drafted the resolution and sees itself as the potential beneficiary. Japan has spent considerable time and money bringing countries in to support its view of whales, and the strategy has clearly paid off. The Commission is deadlocked over the issue of what whales represent. The current balance favours living whales. The moratorium on commercial whaling cannot be overturned without a ¾ vote, which is unlikely unless more countries come into the Commission to support Japan. Cynically, Japan has been very successful in convincing small and impoverished countries to join the Commission and support its view, but it falls far short of the ¾ majority it needs. This resolution is Japan’s big push. It came close to failing. The vote was 30 in favour with 31 abstentions and 1 non-participation. No votes were cast against the resolution. Had the abstentions been no votes, which they really were, Japan would have lost. It’s not as if there is opposition to the concept of assisting countries that are genuinely in need, it’s Japan’s manipulation that is offensive. The task of the pro whale side is now to bring whales the long-term security they need. That means bringing more countries into the Commission to fight for whales, and will involve real work over the next two years. Fortunately, far more people and countries love whales than those who want to see them carved up. So we shall see.
The problem I have with all of this is that the next two years will be occupied by efforts on both sides to shore up their positions. Time and money will be spent, needlessly. As important as it may be, whaling is a distraction from the fundamental issues of today. I asked Japan’s Commissioner Joji Morishita, who is now IWC Chair what he thinks is the greatest problem the world faces. He said population. I then asked him what is the second greatest problem. He said climate. I agree on both, though I reverse the order. Later, I asked him where whaling stands in his list of world issues. His answer was complicated, but it is way down for him, as it is for me. Climate is the only issue we can and need to deal with collectively. Our world and life upon it cannot afford to wait two more years.
We are out of time.
by Paul Spong,
October 29 2016
IWC 66 Day Four
Back down the rabbit hole
This all very familiar, and so so strange. The last time the International Whaling Commission met, the plenary proceedings took 4 days. Afterwards, the Secretariat sent around a survey asking for suggestions about how to make things better. A common response was to add a day, so that is what we have this time, a five day meeting. I’m by no means convinced the extra day contributes anything useful, because what we have is one repetition after another of lines written from a script we’re all familiar with. Antigua and Barbuda’s Daven Joseph drones on, making pious statements about the rights of people that used to be somewhat entertaining because of the cadence of his voice but are now just annoying. No one believes him, yet he gets to spout his nonsense time and again. The Chair is doing his best to control the meeting, but it really is out of control. Japan is not quite getting its way, but it is getting enough to make it happy with the way things are going.
Much of the first three days were taken up with tricky items that were left hanging, including all of the resolutions that were tabled at the beginning. So this was a cleanup day. The meeting opened with the trickiest item of all, “whaling under scientific permit” which is code for Japan breaking all the rules that govern good behaviour, including thumbing its nose at the International Court of Justice. The Scientific Committee was given the task of providing the Commission with advice about Japan’s so-called science, which comes down to determining the legitimacy of Japan’s defiance of the moratorium. It’s an unfair question, more politics than science. Does Japan’s slaughter of whales in the Antarctic and North Pacific contribute anything useful to our understanding of whales? The answer is no, not much or maybe, and given the makeup of the Committee, not unexpected. The Scientific Committee is as divided as the Commission when it comes to opinions about whales and whether or not they should come under the gun. But still, it has a job to do, and when told by the Commission, tries. It has tried several times internally, and brought in outside experts to assist, but has failed to come up with a clear answer. So we come down to today and the resolution by Australia and New Zealand which attempts to bring “scientific whaling” under Commission control. The vote was predictable. Japan lost. This might sound like a victory for whales but it really wasn’t. It will be two more years before the Commission acts on the resolution, if indeed it does, two more years of slaughter in a sanctuary. What does Japan not understand about the word?
Though there were no real surprises, there was a moment of levity when Iceland voted Yes then quickly No! A ripple of chuckles went around the room, including from Iceland. The vote, 34 yes 17 no 10 abstentions was interesting mostly for some of the abstentions. Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Grenada, Kenya, Mauritania and Morocco have all been Japanese puppets at this meeting, yet they failed to support Japan on one of its principle stands. Had the outcome been less certain, they would have voted otherwise, but this was food for thought and possibly a hint of cracks in the wall.
Voting on the other resolutions was just a predicable. Japan lost and it would be tempting to say whales won, but they really didn’t. Resolutions have no real weight, for the most part they are just expressions of opinion. The only real teeth in any of the ones voted on here was the resolution on special permit whaling, which has set in motion a process which may bear fruit at the next meeting, but as I’ve said it is at least 2 years away and a thousand minke whales could die in agony in the meantime.
And then there was Safety at Sea. This agenda item is tabled by Japan at every meeting and purports to show how innocent Japanese whale researchers are intimidated and assaulted by vicious vegan Sea Shepherders in the Antarctic seas. Some of the images are dramatic enough to bring home the seriousness of the conflict, but I suspect many in the room are glad someone is standing up for whales. Japan wants the Netherlands to strip Sea Shepherd’s vessels of its flags, and Australia to deny them entry, but both insist it isn’t the job of the IWC to control the behaviour of ships at sea, but rather the International Maritime Organization. We will see what develops between now and the next IWC meeting. Meanwhile, Sea Shepherd has just launched a new vessel that looked immense in the photograph displayed on the screen by Japan, and is said to be faster than any of Japan’s vessels. It could just tip the scales, for once in favour of whales.
By Paul Spong,
October 27 2016
IWC 66 Day Three
The morning of this day was all about numbers. Some sounded pretty good, like the recovery of southern hemisphere humpback whales to 70% of their “carrying capacity”. I’m not sure whether “carrying capacity” refers to the original population size before the wanton slaughter began, or to the ability of the diminished ecosystem of today to sustain the number of humpbacks that are now alive. Anyway, it sounded like pretty good news for a species that had been brought down to a point where it was teetering on the brink of extinction. There were other encouraging examples too, proof of the amazing things that can happen when killing stops and life begins again. It’s hard to believe, but blue whales in the northern hemisphere are mighty once again. Things are not quite so good in the southern hemisphere, where blues took the brunt of the hit from industrial whaling, but they are recovering too. It was all good news for species after species, though there were exceptions. The South Atlantic right whale is in trouble, despite signs a few years ago that it was recovering. Too many babies are washing up on beaches, for reasons unclear. Overall though, one might think of celebrating the recovery that has taken place since the moratorium was enacted 30 years ago, and enjoy a round of high fives or a glass of champagne. Except for the language used. Whales are not populations and communities of sentient beings for this august body; they are stocks, like cans lined up on a supermarket shelf, waiting to be plucked by eager hands. Those eager hands are the worry here. There are many of them, and there is no sign of them going away. Given what we are learning about whales and their cultures, that is so, so sad.
It turned out that culture provoked the biggest fight of the day. No fisticuffs were thrown, but they may well have. The strident voice of the pro whaling Japanese NGO who defended Japan’s bid for a coastal whaling quota was so loud that it probably caused ears to be covered. I doubt if he advanced his cause, especially because he impulsively took the microphone out of the hands of the pro whale Japanese NGO when she started to speak in a soft reasonable voice. I’d say he lost that argument ten to zip. Japan’s case boils down to history. Hundreds of years ago, people from small Japanese villages went to sea in litte boats to catch big whales. This created the grounds for today’s argument that coastal whaling is a cultural Japanese tradition. The counter argument from many delegates today is that it would be a commercial hunt and therefore a violation of the moratorium. Just the same, Monaco ventured the thought that if Japan were to give up “special permit” whaling and cease its assault on the Antarctic sanctuary, there might be a possibility that its coastal whaling could be classified as aboriginal and exempted from the moratorium. Japan wasn’t biting. Instead, it launched another strategy, raising the issue of the future of the IWC, recognizing the divide that exists and seeking compromise in dulcet tones that sounded so reasonable that one might be lulled into believing in a change of heart. Until the wall. South Africa went along with Japan for a while, apparently believing, and raised the possibility that small cetaceans could at last be included in the Commission’s mandate. Not a chance.
Small cetaceans turned out to provide the agony of this day. The Scientific Committee has done a lot of work looking at populations of small cetaceans and identifying some of them as in dire trouble. Mexico’s vaquita is one, another is New Zealand’s Maui dolphin. The Scientific Committee resorted to unusually emphatic language in its report on these endangered species, calling on the Commission to act urgently, or face the extinction of yet another species. Tomorrow we shall hear the decision about the vaquita; late afternoon signs today suggested there might be enough language in the emergency resolution tabled by the USA to encourage immediate and urgent action. We shall see, and there is some hope, but when it came to the Maui dolphin we will not see anything like the action that is so desperately needed. This tiny New Zealand dolphin is facing threats from seismic exploration as well as gill netting and is certainly as endangered as the vaquita. All we heard from New Zealand were the same lines as two years ago. They are monitoring the situation. The word pathetic comes to mind. Why on Earth the plea of the Scientific Committee wasn’t heard and real action taken to save the 53 Maui dolphins left alive today is anyone’s guess, but as a New Zealander, I hang my head.
So we come to the worst news of today. Irawaddy dolphins, who inhabit the trans boundary area between Laos and Cambodia, are functionally extinct. That means there are too few of them to breed and give the population any chance of recovering. Their numbers are down from just 6 individuals early this year to 3 now. Too sad for words.
It’s time to beat the drum!
by Paul Spong,
October 26, 2016