The fine art of holding one’s nose


IWC 2014 Day Three

There was some good news today. The “Safety at Sea” agenda item, which Japan routinely uses to bash Sea Shepherd and hitherto Greenpeace for opposing its “research” activities in the Antarctic, was dealt with in just 34 minutes. We’re accustomed to it dragging on for hours, staving off sleep in a darkened room while slides and video are projected and the horrors of the latest protest are explained. Perhaps it was the Chair’s general admonition about brevity, or her warning about the consequences of repetition, but mercifully there was barely time to digest lunch before we were out of the Whale Wars and into Other Scientific Activities. This is not to say that the issue is trivial, rather that we’ve heard it all before and know what to expect. Japan will complain, the flag states (Netherlands and Australia) will explain that the IWC is not the proper forum for airing the complaint (it should be the International Maritime Organization) and New Zealand Australia and the USA will attempt to distribute the blame evenly. The whales are nowhere to be seen in this battle of giants.

For some unclear reason, this year’s meeting is being held over just 4 rather than the customary 5 days, so there has been pressure to complete the agenda from the outset. Getting rid of the Scientific Committee’s report in 20’ was a good start, and things had been going along quite swimmingly on this benign Adriatic shore (with customary postponements of tricky items) until they came to a grinding halt post afternoon coffee break when the usually easy topic of Infractions came up. It suddenly became a big deal that the Commission had failed to tidy up its rejection of Denmark’s request on behalf of Greenland at the last meeting in Panama. That meeting was followed by business as usual in Greenland, where hundreds of whales were slaughtered without formal permission from the IWC. Given that Greenland got its way right out of the gate at this year’s meeting, settling the issue for the next 4 years, it might have been easy to turn a blind eye to the slip. But wait. What happened in Panama was the IWC saying NO followed by Greenland doing whatever it wanted. The broader implications of the situation were easy to grasp. A giant loophole has been created, in which a country denied a quota can just go ahead and kill whales anyway, with apparently no consequences. As of the end of today, there was no resolution to this conundrum, and how to handle it was pushed back to tomorrow.

Already, it is clear that time is running out. The list of items pushed back to tomorrow is long, with some of them being the most difficult and important issues IWC 65 has before it. At the head of the line is how to handle the ICJ (International Court of Justice) decision against Japan’s “scientific” whaling in the Antarctic. From the language it has been using, Japan seems to think it actually won a victory at the ICJ. One gets the impression that Japan thinks it was given equal permission to kill and conserve whales by the IJC, and that it merely has to change the number II to III in its Antarctic research plan to proceed. There is a long lineup of delegations who beg to differ. New Zealand’s resolution on special permit (“scientific”) whaling pretty much must be dealt with tomorrow, and despite fiddling and arm twisting, attempts to find common ground have so far failed. It will be interesting to see what happens, because two forces are at work here. One is the urge to work things out, the other to stand and fight. New Zealand, which uses fighting words to make it clear that it is firmly on the side of whales, also revealed a disturbing weak side today. It is apparently quite content to allow the Maui dolphin to slip quietly into oblivion (biological extinction) by failing to take urgent actions to protect its habitat. Maui dolphins are being caught as “by-catch” in gill nets. Fewer than 50 of them remain, yet it possesses sufficient genetic diversity to have a good change of recovery if it is fully protected. New Zealand claims to be trying, but cites the need to “balance a range of considerations, some of which are broader that those considered by the IWC” in designing its actions. What New Zealand is talking about are commercial interests – a gill net fishery, ocean mining, and oil and gas development. For shame.

Also a matter for national shame is Japan’s response to the ICJ judgement. As mentioned, Japan is hard at work designing a new program to replace the discredited JARPA II in the belief that this will allow it to get back to business as usual. In the meantime, a tricky question about what to do with the data collected under a programme that has been declared illegal arises. A split occurred In the Scientific Committee when the Chair ordered (requested) it to conduct a review of JARPA II, with possibly a majority of the Committee refusing. That refusal took up a good chunk of time today, and the issue of how to deal with JARPA II data is still open. Odds are that it will be dealt with by a vote tomorrow, which Japan may well lose.

Tomorrow is going to tell us a lot about resolve and direction in this fragile body. Will Japan get its way and achieve its dream of opening up coastal whaling? Will JARPA II data become acceptable though tainted? Will New Zealand suddenly find room to accommodate Japan’s desire to go back to the Antarctic and kill whales for “research” purposes? Will a majority of Commission members learn enough about the fine art of holding one’s nose to get to the end of the day?

Stay tuned.


by Paul Spong

Portoroz, Slovenia,

September 17, 2014

The sound of silence



IWC 2014 Day Two

Day Two of IWC 65 began with a downsweep, quite possibly because last night’s reception, hosted by the government of Slovenia was long and indulgent, great fun but with consequences that crept into the room this morning.  Thought seemed slower, and after the ASW (Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling) agenda item was tidied and put to bed, somewhat vacant.  The first clue came when the Chair opened the subject of reviewing the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, a process that is supposed to happen every 10 years.  The last review was in 2004, so it is time for another.  Silence descended.  Not one comment was forthcoming, causing the Chair to remark “I know it’s early morning but I can’t make decisions on my own.”  Eventually, the Chair did nudge some expressions of support for an Australian proposal, but it was hard slogging.   Two NGO interventions regarding the proposed South Atlantic Sanctuary (pro and con) followed, signaling the Chair’s intention to allow more civil society participation than hitherto.  This small step may have large consequences down the line, as the IWC edges towards normalcy as an international organisation.

A potentially large step in this direction came with Monaco’s presentation of its resolution on migratory species of cetaceans.  This was first introduced in Panama two years ago but withdrawn because of evident lack of support.  Like Greenland, Monaco did its homework in the intervening time and came back with a powerful presentation, pointing out that drastic changes have occurred in the world of whales, with more coming  The fact is that many times the number of cetaceans covered by the IWC are roaming the oceans, entirely without protection and increasingly facing environmental threats – marine debris, noise, entanglement, ship collisions, climate change to name a few.  Other organizations such as the Convention on Biodiversity are working on some of the problems, and it is time for the IWC to ally with them. Monaco’s dream is that the IWC will become a key player in the monitoring of all pelagic cetacean species, thus moving into an arena of international governance it has been reluctant to enter.  A lot of what Monaco was talking about has to do with small cetaceans, so naturally there was pushback. Norway led the resistance by stating that many species of small cetaceans are not migratory; Monaco later refuted this claim.  Japan backed Norway up by stating that small cetaceans are beyond the competence of the IWC and rather, a regional responsibility.  Led by the EU, the room didn’t buy the con arguments, and when Monaco’s resolution came to a vote, it easily surpassed the 50% bar. In a sense, the IWC has now come of age, because it will increasingly participate in international fora.  Thanks to Monaco, it will come as no surprise if whales are being discussed at the United Nations within a few years.

The trickiest part of Day Two came with the introduction of New Zealand’s resolution on whaling under special permit (“scientific” whaling).  The Chair immediately admonished the room by stating that she did not want debate on the decision of the International Court of Justice at this point, but simply wanted New Zealand to introduce its resolution, with the debate following tomorrow morning.  New Zealand did its best to comply, but was soon distracted by comments from Norway and Japan, who clearly don’t want the Court’s decision to change anything at the IWC.  Eventually, New Zealand announced that it would hold a round table discussion at 6pm, to which all delegations who wanted to review its resolution were invited.  Mid afternoon, that suggestion morphed into an end to the day’s open business, and the meeting adjourned to New Zealand’s round table.  We will learn the outcome tomorrow.

Two other notes from Day Two.  One further explains the title to this story.

Following the discussion on New Zealand’s resolution, the Chair moved to the agenda item Future of the IWC.  There were no comments, provoking an “apparently the IWC has no future” response from her that drew laughter.  Then she moved on to Agenda Item 9, Status of Whale Stocks.  Beginning with the Scientific Committee’s report on Antarctic minke whales, then moving on to Southern Hemisphere humpback whales, Southern Hemisphere blue whales, Southern Hemisphere right whales, Western North Pacific gray whales, and others, her invitations for comment drew only blanks.  Pausing in the silence after each species was named, she said “we extend our thanks to the Scientific Committee for their work.”  At one point she said “silence is golden”.  Then a little later after more blanks “I shall just ask the rapporteurs to duplicate my statement”.  I suppose one could be amused.

On a more positive track, the work of the Conservation Committee is increasingly gaining stature and recognition, such that its role is now secure.  Its mandate includes work on a broad range of topics, from entanglement and marine debris, to noise, pollution, ship strikes and climate change.  For the most part, the work is exciting and brings hope for the future of cetaceans.  Clearly, the iWC is assuming a leading role in dealing with the broad range of urgent problems faced by cetaceans.

There is a down side to the Conservation Committee’s work, however, as it is also responsible for welfare issues.  This brings it directly into the zone of killing whales, from euthanasia to choices of weapons.  Today’s discussion was long and tedious, highlighted by Norway and Japan’s continued refusal to provide data regarding time to death to the IWC.  Japan’s delegate bluntly stated his fear that such information could be used against whaling by people who love whales.  He’s right, of course, but imagination in the absence of knowledge can be a powerful tool too.

by Paul Spong


September 16, 2014

Two thumbs down

IWC_2014_P1000696 copy - Version 2

IWC 2014 Day One

The 65th meeting of the International Whaling Commission, being held in fairytale seaside surroundings in Portoroz, Slovenia, began pretty much where the last meeting in Panama left off, with the issue of Greenland’s request to kill whales for “aboriginal” consumption. Readers who have followed the IWC story will recall that Greenland was denied its request in 2012 because its “needs” statement and explanation could not persuade a ¾ majority of Commission members.

During the interim 2 years, Denmark somehow managed to convince its fellow European Union (EU) members of Greenland’s case, so the first substantive issue debated at this meeting opened with a fait accompli. The votes of the EU members ensured the ¾ majority needed to enshrine Greenland’s “take” of 164 minke, 12 fin, 2 bowhead and 10 humpback whales per year for the next 4 years. Denmark apparently accomplished this by coercion, threatening to leave the EU if Greenland didn’t get its way. The result was an 81% vote in favour of Greenland, despite evidence that the hunt is in part commercial, and that the real needs of Greenland’s population are smaller than the demand.  Only the Latin American “Buenos Aires” group were opposed. Monaco, Australia and Gabon abstained, and New Zealand voted yes, explaining that though it would have preferred abstaining, it wanted the issue settled . Interesting perhaps, if these 4 votes had been opposed, Greenland would have lost once again. It did not, and emerged triumphant.

The way in which Greenland obtained sanction for its objectives perfectly illustrates the way in which the IWC operates. Arms are twisted, deals are made, and the whales are pretty much left to fall by the wayside.

Falling by the wayside is pretty much what is happening to the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, one again. The proposal, fleshed out in greater detail than ever, has been on the IWC table for more than 20 years. The logic behind its creation is irrefutable in that it would not only protect whales within a huge area of ocean that were once subject to the greatest exploitation in history, thus promoting recovery of decimated populations, but it would encourage and facilitate research, education and tourism in countries around its perimeter. The opposition is knee-jerk, a response to Japan’s insistence that whales anywhere and everywhere must remain open to “sustainable use” regardless of their present circumstances. The language used by opponents invariably bears the same stamp: Japan. It will come as no surprise when the vote is held at this meeting if once again it fails to meet the ¾ majority bar. This despite a meeting in Montevideo earlier this year at which numerous African governments opposed to the Sanctuary at the IWC signed on to a resolution supporting its creation. Go figure.

One more bizarre note. The report of the Scientific Committee was dealt with in a 20’ slide show replete with “there is no time to discuss” comments by the Chair, Japan’s Toshihide Kitakado.   Previously, the report of this most essential arm of the Commission was explained piece by piece throughout the meeting, as agenda items were discussed. This time, the scientists’ work was compressed such that it might as well have been garbage. The reports of the Committee exist of course, and are available to be read on the IWC web site, but if the casino next door offered the wager, I’d be willing to bet that few at this meting have read it. Ignorance, they say, can be bliss.

by Paul Spong

September 15 2014