IWC 60: a price too high – June 22nd 2008

“Curiouser and curiouser” cried Alice as she watched her feet disappear from sight and wondered how she might ever get back to ground. That just about sums up my impression of the fantasy world I’ve entered down here in Santiago, Chile, the venue for the 60th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). It’s the first day of winter here, the first day of summer back home. Topsy Turvy.

The first signs came at the airport. I filled out the entry papers with my name, nationality, occupation etc. and presented them to the immigration officer. As I explained that I was a whale scientist coming to attend a meeting about whales, an odd expression came over him. He looked carefully at my papers and then at a sheet sitting on the edge of his desk and got on the phone. Soon another immigration officer arrived, then a 3rd one. They talked among themselves as the first one held my passport photo up to the computer screen, which I couldn’t see, and seemed to be comparing my photo with what he was looking at. The questioning went along the lines of “your first name is Paul?” (yes); your family name is Spong” (yes); “you are Canadian?” (yes); “do you sometimes use another name?” (no); “do you sometimes use the name Watson?” (no, but I know who you’re talking about”. More energetic conversation between the officers ensued, and so much time was passing that I began to wonder what would come next. Then, having a bright idea, I retrieved a business card from my briefcase and handed it over. “This is you?” (yes); “you are from OrcaLab? (yes); and then, like a small miracle the gates opened, he stamped my passport and said “you can go”.

It was about to get worse. Today, at the pre-conference NGO meeting I learned that the EU is about to hand Greenland the right to add 10 humpbacks to its long list of whales killed for “aboriginal subsistence” purposes. This is going to happen in the face of clear evidence (knowledge) that Greenland’s whale hunt is partly commercial. Large quantities of whale meat are bought privately and sold in supermarkets. Anyone can buy it – no proof of “aboriginal need” is required. The EU’s problem is that it has decided to vote as a block at the IWC, and because Denmark insists, the rest follow. This is the EU trying to help whales. Go figure.

And then there’s the buzz of making a deal. It’s all whisper and rumour about what’s happening behind closed doors in private Commissioner’s meetings, but the IWC chairman, Bill Hogarth of the USA, sounded upbeat in his comments to the press today. He refused details but told the media to stand by for an announcement by week’s end. What he’s apparently looking for is agreement that in return for Japan ending its “scientific” whaling in the Antarctic, the Commission will create a new class of “community” whaling under which Japan will again be able to kill whales in its coastal waters, legally. If this actually happens by week’s end, there will be great hurrahs and clapping of backs amidst a proclamation of “progress” at the IWC.

And meanwhile on the sidelines, an NGO seminar on the impacts of global warming on whales and Antarctic ecosystems sent collective shivers up the spines of everyone who attended. It is virtually beyond question that Antarctic krill populations will collapse in the next few decades, and with them, the populations of whales that depend on krill. The chances of whales adapting to such rapid changes are virtually nil. And the chances that the IWC will recognize the issue of global warming for what it is – the ultimate threat to oceans, whales and humanity alike – seem about the same. There will be no substantive discussion of the threat of global warming in this meeting; at most there will be brief mention of a future Scientific Committee workshop on the issue. The deal with Japan will trump everything else on the table.

Nero fiddling while Rome burned had nothing on this mob. What are they on?

I can’t leave my comments about Day Zero without mentioning some bright spots in the daze. Nicaragua is here, and will vote for conservation; Dominica has announced that it will vote against Japan & for conservation; Slovenia and Romania are here, also to support whales, and next year Poland will join them.

And this afternoon, in a great grassy field in a downtown park, hundreds upon hundreds of people – more than a thousand and possibly twice that many – sat patiently lined up in rows on wet grass, for hours, waiting for a helicopter to fly overhead and take photos of the great shape they formed with their bodies – a minke whale with flippers outstretched, and beside it the acronym for the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary that is still a dream of the South American nations that are the whales’ front line defenders.

I seriously doubt that in the real world, which these marvelous Chileans represent as a tiny sample of people who care about whales, there will be acceptance of the deal that is being made behind closed doors this week.

The price is too high.

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