You know the story. It’s easy to borrow from Shakespeare. So here we are again, at the beginning of a week of chatter about how to kill whales and how to save them. It’s hard to call the chatter conversation because there really isn’t any. Just two sets of opinions with a void between. To be truthful, I’m worried about what will come this next week. Despite the paradise setting here in Brazil, a gorgeous long sandy beach with endless white capped waves rolling in that transports me back to my childhood in New Zealand, this place feels more like a whalers club than it has for decades. Japan thinks it has the keys to the back if not front door and just might open it. Their document is called The Way Forward. It’s a way to go straight back to the bad old days, starting with overturning the Moratorium achieved by a ¾ majority vote in 1982, changing the rules of procedure so decisions are made by simple majority votes, creating a new Sustainable Use Committee, and bringing in diplomats to settle the remaining issues. That last bit is the scariest part of the package. Think Trump and Abe’s handshake.
By all appearances Japan is riding high already. Their delegation, which is apparently huge and includes 9 Diet members arrived today along with a very large media contingent. They were greeted by Brazilian riot police so it seems the hosts aren’t taking any chances about what’s to come. Apparently, part of Japan’s media strategy is to live broadcast the proceedings which puzzles me a bit because the Secretariat already does that, with simultaneous translation. I have a sneaking suspicion the commentary will be crafted for the home crowd, raising the flag and rallying the troops as it were. Sounds familiar.
The past week of Sub-Committee meetings, despite the largely polite language has seen a few skirmishes as well as revealing obviously entrenched positions. The biggest deal and the most entrenched positions revolve around renewal of aboriginal subsistence quotas. The USA, Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have bundled what would normally be a set of case by case proposals into a single package in which they insist not a word can be changed. It’s not a take it or leave it package, rather a take it one, and apparently heavy guns in the US State Department have been applying thumb screws to any laggards. We will learn quite quickly whether the strategy works, or whether some brave soul in the room will try to tease the bundle apart. There are elements such as automatic renewal of quotas that scream for comment and opposition because in essence they will turn the Commission into a gaggle of nodders, a bit like Republicans in the US Congress.
For me the most obvious harbinger of what’s to come appeared in the Finance and Administration Committee yesterday. The Conservation Committee, which has been doing stellar work on issues like entanglement, ship strikes and marine debris including plastics contamination has such a heavy and expanding work load that it wants to move to annual meetings and hold them in conjunction with Scientific Committee meetings. Totally reasonable and helpful. Doing so would cost the Commission an additional 26,000 pounds annually, one would think a small price to pay for vitally important and useful work. The response drew the first blades. Iceland jumped in to say it opposes the work of the Conservation Committee, period, and has always done so. It was quickly supported by Japan. What surprised me a couple of beats later was that Norway joined them. I say surprised because Norway had made supportive comments about the work of the Conservation Committee during its long meeting the day before. There was no need for Norway to do this because the report of the Committee was already going to signal no consensus, but it was a big reveal. No change.
And then there was the proposed solution for the Commission’s financial crisis. It seems Brexit has caused the pound to drop so much that the current financial structure of the Commission is unsustainable. Within a few years the Commission will be broke if nothing is done. It turns out, perhaps no surprise, that no-one wants to pay more. A 7.8% hike in fees would keep things running as they are, with the Commission doing good work and potentially doing more of it. Nothing doing. I take that as a clear sign about how much members really care about whales and the work of the IWC. Disappointing yes big time, because the solution which will be put to the Plenary next week is to whack the Scientific Committee budget by 30%. That is a big deal because in many ways this will gut the progressive work of the IWC. And I’m pretty sure you can guess one of the prime targets: Conservation.
And so the stage is set. The players are in place. Stay tuned.
by Paul Spong,
September 9, 2018