IWC 62 wrap-up: a bullet dodged

This year’s 62nd meeting of the International Whaling Commission, held in Agadir Morocco, will go down as a failed attempt to restart legally sanctioned commercial whaling.  The attempt occurred under the banner of saving some whales’ lives, and bringing some of the worst aspects of present-day whaling under IWC control.  Had the “deal” been agreed to, Japan’s so-called “scientific” whaling, under which it presently issues unlimited permits to itself and sells the product, would have required approval from the IWC’s Scientific Committee, and the Commission itself.  Closing this loophole would have been a huge step towards fixing one of the major problems with the 1946 treaty under which the IWC was formed.  Another very desirable element of the “consensus package” on offer was the closure of international trade in whale products.  Getting agreement about this would have also represented a huge step forward. But the price was too high.  Abandoning the moratorium, and allowing the legal killing of whales for commercial profit again, would have opened the door to a potentially unending, bleak future for whales in which they are once again regarded as no more than objects of gruesome commerce.  So much of the world has moved on from this view of whales that it is now receding rapidly, as if falling behind in a rear view mirror, and despite the dying that is happening and will come, there is real cause for optimism.

Having failed at this attempt to reinvent commercial whaling, despite surprising support from the opposing side, it is now very much in Japan’s hands to determine what happens next.  It is hard to imagine that Japan’s government, or people, have much stomach for an endless fight in which they always appear in the blackest hats and darkest suits. Yet there are matters of principal and national pride involved, which are enormously important to any nation, and perhaps more so to Japan than most others.  Finding a solution to the puzzle of how to end whaling without creating “losers” was a large part of the motivation of many who participated in the discussions that led to the now rejected “package”.  Though it is possible the “deal” may return in modified form at next year’s meeting, after Chairman Livingstone’s proposed “time out for reflection” it seems very unlikely to succeed.  Japan, therefore, has a very serious decision to make.  Perhaps, with the end of JARPA II (Japan’s Antarctic “research whaling” programme) in 2011, Japan may find reason to pause and reflect.  After 23 years of data collection, such a pause would be natural, and not forced.  If Japan chooses, this could be a honourable way out of an increasingly difficult dilemma, and bring relief to all sides.

Meanwhile, it needs to be stressed that the IWC is by no means “dysfunctional” as is claimed by those who would go back to the “good old” whaling days again.  In fact, the work of the Scientific Committee and Conservation Committee is stellar in many ways, and very important to the fate of whales and the oceans of our planet.  Key issues being addressed include noise, ship strikes, entanglements, ecosystem integrity, and climate change.  All of these are the subject of focused discussions within these committees when they meet annually, and as well, numerous workshops are scheduled, sometimes years in advance, to which experts from around the world are invited to contribute their specialised knowledge.  Altogether, the work of these committees provides real cause for optimism about the future of the IWC, whales, and our critically endangered oceans.

It was very interesting to note, at the same time as media stories regretful of the meeting’s outcome appeared, a little flurry of stories that gave prominent press space to arguments favouring whales’ rights to life.  Brain size and complexity, self-awareness, complex functioning societies, and sophisticated communication are items on a lengthy list of cetacean attributes that argue the case for them being regarded, and treated, as “beings” rather than as mere animals.  Cetaceans are not alone in this zone, as higher primates and elephants are found there too.

We shall see, as time passes, whether this divergent view manages to penetrate the thought barrier that is the IWC wall.  If it does, a conversation I had with St. Kitts & Nevis’ Commissioner Daven Joseph may come to mind.  We found ourselves sitting next to each other on the bus ride out to the Air Maroc plane at Agadir airport.  We shook hands and soon acknowledged being on opposite sides of the debate.  Talking about the meeting’s failure, he expressed hope that compromise would be possible in the future; I said, “Actually, Daven, I want us all to end up on the same side”.

I do believe, that one day, we will.

Posted by Paul Spong

July 3, 2010

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