Bungling the future of whales

IWC 2012 Day Two

It turned out I was wrong on just about every count yesterday.  First, about the weather.  Today, it rained at 2pm, not 4pm as I had stated.  True, it did come as an unreal downpour as we skirted the pool under shelter after lunch.  When we got to the room the rain beating on the roof was so loud, and the thunder so thunderous, it was hard to hear anything without earphones on.  But fortunately, that’s the way we sit at IWC 64 – with earphones tuned to the English channel as multiple simultaneous translations occur.  The translation service at this meeting is one of its marvels, entirely out of view of participants and as smooth as soft butter.  Bravo Secretariat!

The real point at which I went off course was in my feeling that enough outrage existed among pro-whale delegates to turn the tide on the “bundling” of Aboriginal and Subsistence Whaling (ASW) quotas proposed by the USA.  Not so.  The only push back came from the BAG (Latin America’s Buenos Aires Group) and even they were not quite solid when it came to voting on the US proposal, which the BAG insisted on.  Mexico and Panama voted for it.  Both votes were disappointments, though perhaps Panama’s, as the host, was somewhat understandable.  The result of the vote was that the USA proposal received 83% support, far more than it needed to pass. And the upshot of that decision is that for 6 more years the humpbacks of the Caribbean will be targeted by “whalers” who chase them around in speedboats, violating every ASW rule in the book, separating mothers from babies, and killing whoever and whenever they can.  Outrageous doesn’t even begin to describe this vision of the future for the humpbacks who happen to experience the misfortune associated with checking out the waters around Bequia.  It could have been so different.

It’s perhaps worth spending a moment imagining an “if only” scenario for this vote.  If only the BAG had been solid and Panama & Mexico had voted NO; if only Monaco & India had not abstained and voted NO; and if only one of Australia and New Zealand, supposedly principled defenders of whales, had voted NO, the inane bundling proposal would have been defeated.  All of these nations have been such staunch defenders of whales that one is left bemused.  Why?  Note that I haven’t mentioned the European Union as a factor yet, and there’s a reason for that.

The EU has 25 members in the IWC. On its own it could have blocked the US proposal, but it chose not to. Sadly, the explanation is that EU membership in the IWC is in such disarray that it cannot decide on any issue without adopting a common position, which entails endless coordination meetings.  The farcical nature of this arrangement is revealed by Demark, which openly stated at the beginning of this meeting that it was wearing two hats and would not be bound by EU positions, regardless of what they might be. One might think that this would have instilled enough freedom for others in the EU to speak their minds (and vote them) but apparently not.  Without exception, the EU members of the IWC voted for the US proposal and against whales.  The scene couldn’t help making one long for the days of Richard Nixon, when the US was a real advocate for whales, and succeeding, and for the days when the EU was a force in the world. When the moment passed into a coffee break a bit later, there was much congratulatory palm and back slapping on one side, and a telling silence on the other.

Having got the meat of the meeting out of the way (at least as the US saw things) it was on to the request by Demark, on behalf of Greenland, to substantially increase the number of whales it kills annually. The request was probably more justifiable in terms of actual aboriginal needs than that of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but it ran into a roadblock.  Apparently, the US had tried to convince Greenland to bundle its request with the others, but failed because Greenland wanted more than the status quo. Meanwhile, NGOs had assembled convincing evidence that Greenland hunts of whales have a significant commercial component. The upshot was resistance by many in the room who had previously rolled over for the USA. Australia for example complained that when the Commission agreed to Greenland’s request to kill humpbacks 2 years ago, the idea was to reduce the total number of whales killed.  Now, Greenland wants more, and Australia couldn’t handle that.  Others who had just approved Caribbean butchery reverted to the failure of Greenland to obtain approval from the Scientific Committee as an explanation for their opposition.  It was hard to know where the mood came from, but it was definitely clear that there would be no consensus on the Greenland request. The pro-use side was driven to accusations of bigotry and racism, which didn’t help either.  Wisely, with Denmark’s approval, the Chair delayed a decision on the Greenland request until later in the meeting.

Though useful work was eventually done in the form of a report about the important contributions being made by the Conservation Committee – on ship strikes, marine debris, entanglement, whale watching and more – it was clear by the end of Day Two that an opportunity to assist whales in their journey into the future had been lost.

As Helena said in her summation of what’s happened here so far:

IWC stands for: “It Won’t Change”.

Too bad.


by Paul Spong,

July 3, 2012

Listen now

Stream our live hydrophone audio