IWC 59 set to open in Anchorage – May 27th 2007

An oddly surreal air pervades the hallways of the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Alaska, where the 59th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is set to open Monday morning. Security is tight. All entrances to every conceivable space associated with the meeting are guarded, often twice, photo IDs are mandatory and inspected at every turn, suited men with wires dangling from their ears stand vigilant, benign inquiries are met with non answers, and a Greenpeace led no-bad-feelings-on-display parade that attracted 300 local and visiting citizens including bunches of kids was accompanied by 32 uniformed & armed police officers. The parade was orderly and fun, possibly thanks to the police presence though probably mostly because of the whale vibes of the costumed & sign bearing participants, and provoked no questions until a local observer mentioned that the recent anniversary of the launch of the Iraq War brought out twice as many people and no police. One is tempted to ask, what is going on here? Is this just a reflection of US paranoia over an international event happening on its soil, or are we entering a new phase in the Whale Wars? The answer to the second part of this question may be yes.

For the first time in years, it’s looking like the pro-whale side will achieve a clear majority in this meeting. There are numerous uncertainties about payment of dues (non-payment forfeits voting rights) and a rumour about a Japanese delegate carrying a satchel of cash to help out needy allies, but most members on each side will probably show up to vote. With its 5 new members (Croatia, Ecuador, Cypress, Slovenia, Greece) and a switch in Nicaragua’s position following the recent presidential election, the pro-whale camp has outdone Japan in the year since the last meeting, which ended ominously with the “St. Kitts Declaration” that called for the return of the IWC to its roots, where the only item on the agenda was carving up the whale pie. Japan has only brought Laos in, though Tanzania may show up as well, and the Solomon Islands are probably not coming. So Japan’s pro-whaling ranks have thinned, and the pro-whale camp has grown, no doubt as a reaction to Japan’s “victory” last year. As a pro-whale person, one might be tempted to a celebratory mood. But……

Behind the voting numbers, serious dangers lie for whales. The biggest of them comes from a simple human trait, politeness. Rumour has it that core pro-whale nations, having achieved a powerful (majority) position, want to take it easy on their foe. So there will be no straight-on renunciation of the St Kitts Declaration, just some language to send to CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species which meets next month) in the hope that the current prohibition on trade in whale products will continue. Even more disturbing, there is not even a resolution being drafted, let alone being circulated for sign-ons, that condemns Iceland for its outrageous unilateral resumption of commercial whaling. Nor is there a hint that anyone will seriously take on Greenland’s demand to kill 2 Bowheads, 10 humpbacks and 25 more minkes in the name of providing subsistence for its people. All one hears about is negotiation and compromise – the possibility exists that Greenland may be allowed its way as a one year test, though everyone knows that once a foot is in the door it’s game over. On the Greenland front again, the shocking news that 15-35 orcas have been killed yearly for the past 5 years in targeted hunts as “other takes”, has barely stirred the conscious surface of this meeting. Greenland’s orca population may be about to crash, as did Japan’s in the ‘60’s after years of high “takes”, and no-one seems aware. The real focus, and possibly the only purpose of IWC 59 is the renewal of the US’s Bowhead (Aboriginal Subsistence) quota. Regardless of all other issues, the US, which has assumed the IWC chair, has this sole aim. The Bowhead issue may be settled by day two of the meeting, but this will only happen if Japan complies. In the tradeoffs that lie therein, lurk the real dangers for the whales at this meeting.

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