IWC 2011 Day One: the same old lines

Jersey is a pleasant and friendly place of about 100,000 souls, close enough to France to have more than a sprinkling of French names for streets, and close enough to England to have the familiar sound of cheerful English voices warbling out of pubs and cafes. Outside the city of St Heliers, green fields surrounded by hedges abound, and inside them, wooly white sheep and Jersey cows loll about or stroll around.  The island atmosphere is relaxed for good reason.  This little state, just 47 square miles at high tide (quite a bit bigger when the tide is out and enormous beaches appear) is in the UK but not run by it; it recognizes the Queen but does not pay English taxes; it is close to Europe but is not in the EU, and therefore not bound by its rules.  There is virtually no unemployment, and almost half of Jersey’s GDP comes from the financial sector.  Altogether, it seems like life is pretty laid back and easy here, no worries.  That is, no worries until the Whale Wars came to town.

Today, the narrow street outside the venue was filled with the sound of beeping and blaring car horns as drivers sped by, responding to signs held by a small band of demonstrators calling on them to “honk for whales”.  Not even a whisper penetrated the meeting, but the demonstrators sang for hours; two of them were escorted off the hotel premises, and apparently some of the Japanese delegation felt intimidated at lunchtime.  I doubt that was the intent, as the watching police all wore smiles, but am also sure the feeling was real enough to cause the IWC Secretary to apologise profusely to Japan at the end of the day.

Entering the venue inside felt like entering a vast and very dark cavern.  All the surfaces are black, the ceiling is high and curved, and the long lines of black-topped tables almost disappear out of sight.  The illusion is that the room is filled with very small people, and given the timbre of much of the conversation, perhaps there is some truth to that.  Certainly, there was no discernible Mind in these waters, despite Norway’s recognition of sentience in cetaceans.  It came as a token offering to whale lovers, and was quickly dismissed by Norway on the grounds that other animals and birds possess sentience as well.  Apparently to Norway, this makes imposing unholy levels of suffering on innocent beings an acceptable practice in the civilized world.

The order of business of Day One quickly took us through credential and visa problems, along with non-payment of fees encountered by some delegations, with St. Kitts & Nevis winning a day’s delay, but it does seem the voting list will be smaller than previously.  We’ll know by Wednesday.  By then, we should also know the outcome of the UK’s initiative on governance, which it now seems is back to being an EU initiative, where it began.  It’s unclear what happened to Denmark’s veto of the proposal, but it is a good sign that the EU is now united behind it.   Tomorrow, we should know more, possibly even whether one country is willing to call for a vote.  This needs to happen, if the proposal fails to achieve consensus, which is almost certain.  If a vote does happen, it will be the first in years, and possibly a sign that things really are changing at the IWC.

In the meantime, the meeting is wading through the work of the Scientific Committee, which includes “abundance estimates” of a long list of species up for grabs, should commercial whaling be allowed again.  One wonders at times if anyone is paying attention, as there is very little comment or questioning of the information and recommendations.  Eventually, and possibly not far away, the Scientific Committee will come up with real numbers for population (“stock”) estimates, and real numbers for quotas, rather than modeling and estimating.  At that point, everyone in the room will suddenly be awake, and the shouting may begin again.   For the moment, praise for the work of the Scientific Committee, and politeness towards adversaries is the order of the day.  There is some testing of the waters, however, as in the almost rough exchanges over Iceland’s outrageous treatment of fin whales.   Monaco inserted the first probe, pointing out that the Scientific Committee would set a number of 48 or thereabouts if its procedures were followed, whereas Iceland killed more than 250 fins in just 2 years.  The comment was followed by a quick rejoinder from Iceland (it sees no problem) and then a series of thrusts from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and the US.  It was a skirmish only, but a clear sign of what’s to come if substantive issues hit the floor.

Despite the occasional rumblings, this was a fairly easy day for all, about the only real glitch being a technical one – the microphone system failed entirely at one point during the morning session, forcing a 15’ break before coffee time.  There was even a round of hearty laughter when the Russian Commissioner made his first intervention.  As is customary, he thanked the host country and praised its people, except that in translation it came out as “thanks to Jersey and its very nice and hostile people.”  Regardless of whether they’d seen Lost in Translation, everyone enjoyed the moment.  Later, after the day’s proceedings ended, a 2 hour reception hosted by Jersey and the hotel’s owner had the entire assembly, regardless of side, ending the day in a jolly mood.

Tomorrow, when Financial and Administrative matters are the first agenda item, we will begin to see the shape of this meeting.  Meanwhile, some encouragement can be drawn from the 23 EU members joining hands in a reform proposal that now excludes touchy references to NGO participation, and in the hints that the US is prepared to go at least a little way towards becoming a whale advocate again.

posted by Paul Spong,

July 12  2011



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