IWC 60 day one: molasses moves faster – June 23rd 2008

This year’s IWC meeting got off to a start very much along the lines Chairman Hogarth predicted in his press conference yesterday – slowly. Amazingly, his attempt at convincing the polarized sides to at least be polite to one another seems to have succeeded – for the moment. Moreover, he seems to have achieved his aim to run the meeting by consensus. Until somebody can’t help themselves, there will be no votes in this meeting, nor will there be any resolutions. Even the proposed South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, so dear to the hearts of the host nation and its Latin American allies, will likely be left off the table. Given the absence of real debate, which has made many attendees wonder why they’re here, glazed eyes have quickly became the order of the day. Everything of substance in IWC 60 will be discussed and decided behind closed doors, in Commissioners’ only meetings. And as a layer behind those, there will be small working groups which sort things out before the Commissioners have a go at them.

Underneath the veneer, however, the old tensions remain. Japan, while expressing a willingness to forgo its usual attempt to delete items such as whale welfare from the agenda by vote, still made its objections clear. Perhaps in retaliation, and possibly as a portent of things to come, when the welfare agenda item came up today, pro-whale nations managed to get in a jibe at Japan over its refusal to hand over data revealing time to death of the whales it kills. In response, Japan calmly stated its perfect willingness to provide these data when the IWC is “normalized” (read, returned to its whale-killing roots).

Norway almost drew a round of applause for its contrasting clinical description of the way it handles death data, equating the paralyzed limbs of whales to quadriplegic humans, and expressing satisfaction with the “massive brain damage” that follows a properly placed penthrite explosion in the body of a whale. The description evoked imagery of flashing steel and spurting blood, but the urge to camaraderie in this room is such that whale loving Australia enthusiastically “welcomed” Norway’s report.

Day One brought some encouraging news along with bad and disturbing news from the Scientific Committee. Many southern hemisphere humpback populations are increasing their numbers at a healthy rate, though there are still questions and concerns. Japan’s urge to start killing humpbacks again no doubt reflects this (relatively) rosy picture. On the down side, the Scientific Committee is finally willing to say that Antarctic minke whales have been declining in numbers for decades, though Japan apparently still clings to the belief that many “missing” minkes are hiding in ice. At the bottom of the scale of hope is the precarious state of western gray whales, all 150 of them. To Japan’s credit, it is finally taking steps to discourage its fishermen from accidentally trapping western grays in nets, but the 5 females killed over the past 36 months must have struck a heavy blow to the population’s chances of recovery.

Some really good news about blue whales came from the Scientific Committee, but at the same time it was also very disturbing. Turning back from the fate of biological extinction they faced in the 1960’s, their numbers in Antarctic waters have climbed to more than 2,000, but that number is less than 1% of the original population. It was hard to know whether to smile or cry at the news. Chilean scientists are astounded at being able to see blue whales again – more than 300 of them have been identified. Blues were literally exterminated from Chile’s coastal waters in the last gasp of the whaling industry in the ’60s.

The blues’ incredible journey back from the brink, still in its beginning stages, probably had much to do with a heart warming ceremony that was conducted today by Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet at an old whaling station near Santiago. Accompanied by environment ministers from Australia, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, along with 20 Chilean school children and a throng of media, President Bachelet proclaimed Chile’s coastal waters as a whale sanctuary. No more blues, or any other of the great whales will ever be killed here again. The journey from whaler to whale saver took half a century, but it was quite enough to give one hope.

Hope was also the welcome theme of an outside event at the morning coffee break. Organised by Greenpeace but a kids’ idea, 200 school children gathered in front of the conference hotel to proclaim a whale nation. Cutting a symbolic ribbon, they presented passports to IWC Chairman Hogarth and the Environment Ministers of Chile, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Australia.

Across the street, a noisy anti-whaling demonstration, not associated with Greenpeace or the children, was broken up by police who hauled 15 protesters away. Their fate was not revealed by the end of the day, but the incident added a surreal note to what was already unreal.

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