IWC 66 Day Four

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,

Portoroz Slovenia,

October 27 2016

IWC 66 Day Three

IWC 66 Day Three

Going going

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,

Portoroz Slovemia,

October 26, 2016

IWC 66 Day Two

A blast from the past

And a rude awakening

Sidney Holt has saved more whales than anyone. It’s a bland but totally true statement. Were it not for Sidney, the blue whale would probably be gone from the face of the Earth. Extinct. Fin and humpback whales would not be far behind. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, possibly millions.

The IWC was formed in 1946. The assessment rule of thumb of the day was the “blue whale unit” and quotas were set accordingly. A blue whale unit equaled one blue whale, 2 fin whales, two and a half humpback whales and six sei whales. It was all about oil. The more whales killed, the more oil produced. The whalers went on their merry way until profits started going down. Less oil was being produced year by year. Worrisome. The Commission didn’t trust the advice coming from its scientific committee, so it decided to call in an independent group of scientists, who formed “The Committee of Three”. Sidney was one of them, the others being Doug Chapman of the USA and Kay Allen of Australia. Their conclusions in the early 1960s rocked the IWC and put the brakes on commercial whaling. Sidney, who worked for the FAO as a fisheries biologist, did the math that showed how dire the situation was. We and the whales owe a huge debt of gratitude to him. He is now 90 years old and a little frail, but his mind is as sharp as a razor. And he is here, regaling anyone within earshot with tales from the past that bring hoots of laughter and moments of reflection. A few lucky among us have a hot off the press copy of his book: SAVE THE WHALE! Memoirs of a whale hugger. It’s hard to know what the delegates at this meeting make of Sidney’s presence, but he is very visible and I suspect some of them recognize him as the enemy who won. The moratorium on commercial whaling, the Indian Ocean Sanctuary, and the Southern Oceans Sanctuary would almost certainly not exist without Sidney. We are blessed by his presence as we try to turn the page.

Reflections aside, this has been a very difficult day. It began with yet another rejection of SAWS, the proposal to establish a sanctuary for whales in the South Atlantic Ocean. The vote in favour was about 60%, so it didn’t come close to achieving the ¾ majority it needed. Hopes dashed, the proponents led by Brazil and Argentina press on. Brazil has offered to host the next IWC meeting, in 2018, so perhaps the ambience of that land of beaches and beauty will be enough to put Japan’s acolytes under their spell. We can only hope. Hope aside, the spectacle of country after another casting votes according to Japan’s script was enough to turn strong stomachs.

The next blow came when a resolution about trying to save the vaquita from extinction stalled under the stony (read heartless) gaze of Iceland and Norway. Mexico’s tiny dolphin is being drowned in gill nets being set to catch totoaba, a fish in the northern Gulf of California that is being caught for its swim bladder, which fetches big bucks in China and Hong Kong. The totoaba is itself endangered, and the trade is illegal, but none of that matters. A year ago, the vaquita was down to less than 100 individuals; now, with three recent deaths, it is just 59. The situation cries out for urgent action. Mexico is trying. CITES and the IUCN have taken up the vaquita’s cause at their recent meetings, so it seemed a no brainer that the IWC would too. Not so. Instead of passion and action, what we got was mean spirited whining. I tell you, if Iceland and Norway persist in claiming that the IWC has no business dealing with small cetaceans because they weren’t mentioned in the 1946 Convention, I might just throw up more than breakfast. What on Earth are these guys playing at? What do they not understand about the word extinction? Do they not remember the baiji?

Onward, we entered another dark tunnel, aboriginal subsistence whaling. I doubt whether anyone in the room objects to the principle that aboriginal people in the Arctic, who have depended on cetaceans for centuries should be deprived of an important source of food. But what we heard was a claim of rights that amounted to open season, and a report from an “expert panel” that offered a blank cheque as a solution. No need any more for a “needs “ statement. Just fill in the blank with a number, any number, and go right ahead. I may be exaggerating, because the IWC will still have to approve quotas, but that’s what it sounded like. Some words of caution were heard, and we shall see before this week ends how the wind is actually blowing, but it feels a bit in the face at the moment.

By Paul Spong,

Portoroz Slovenia,

October 25, 2016