IWC day one – May 28th 2007

Day One of the 59th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) began in an ordinary enough way, with a prayer, welcoming speeches by dignatories, and a wonderful performance by Alaskan and Siberian native drummers and dancers that left the audience impressed and energized. Perhaps it was the charm, or the waft of fresh air the drums left behind in the room, but the meeting got under way in the total absence of the acrimony that usually sets in when the gavel falls. After the pro-whaling no-showers (Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands) and no payers (Cameroon, Togo) were counted, and everyone on the pro-whale side except Nicaragua had taken their seats, and Costa Rica had come back for the whales, and Ecuador, Slovenia and Croatia had made passionate new-member statements for the whales, it was quite obvious there was a pro-whale majority in the room. Perhaps in recognition, Japan put on a gracious face, and in a total break with tradition, made no attempt to change the agenda beyond noting its objection to the inclusion of issues such as welfare, conservation, whale watching and small cetaceans. Rather, Japan spoke of good faith, along with a willingness to talk and seek trust and understanding. Norway joined the love fest and made no attempt to remove whale watching from the agenda, though it requested its objection be noted in the record. It was difficult to know exactly what provoked this burst of goodwill, but the ways of the IWC are such that quite possibly as soon as the agenda was adopted, everyone began waiting for the second shoe to drop.

It didn’t take long for a list of issues that separates the fundamental views of the two sides to start emerging. The first substantial item on the agenda was “stock” assessments (noting as a personal aside, objection to the use of a term which demotes the extraordinary creatures whales are to items on a supermarket shelf). Despite their hopes, expectations and even promises, the Scientific Committee has yet to come up with an agreed estimate of the population of minke whales in the Antarctic. This is a key concern for Japan, of course, because of their past characterization of minkes as “cockroaches of the sea” in apparent reference to the breeding propensity of the species (can’t kill ‘em fast enough to make a dent in the numbers) but also in apparent disregard of the fundamental fact that the results of careful scientific surveys impel the conclusion that the population is plummeting. Japan is convinced the missing minkes are hiding in ice that can’t be surveyed, others like New Zealand and Australia are worried about the trends and see real cause for concern. The Scientific Committee (almost) promises to have a clear answer next year. Meanwhile, Japan will set out before Christmas to kill another thousand minkes in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary.

Moving on to even murkier waters, the Scientific Committee reported that many southern hemisphere humpback populations are showing signs of recovery, though their numbers are still far below pre-whaling levels. Very encouraging was the report that a catalogue of southern hemisphere humpbacks now contains identification photos for more than 3,000 individuals. This good news contrasts starkly with Japan’s plans to kill 50 southern hemisphere humpbacks in its JARPA II “research” programme. Naturally, southern hemisphere nations like Australia and New Zealand are outraged. At this point in the meeting we heard the most passionate statements so far, with New Zealand declaring that humpbacks are icons, that their images and songs are what identify whales to people. The passion was followed by a plea to Japan to remove humpbacks from JARPA II. Australia backed up the same plea to Japan with 40,000 signatures brought to the meeting by 3 young girls from New South Wales in an appeal to Japan to spare their friends. Australia concluded: “What if their friend is not there, killed in a so-called scientific programme?” The question went unanswered. Japan in response, while claiming the science basis of their plan, once again indicated an openness for discussion. At this point, it was hard not to think of humpbacks as throwaways in the game that is developing at this meeting.

The other major rift that opened on Day One was over whale welfare. Many IWC members consider “time to death” a quantitative reflection of the fundamental cruelty inherent in killing whales. Some countries, like the UK, believe the cruelty issue alone is sufficient cause to ban commercial whaling altogether. Norway, to its credit, believes in cooperation and is providing data to the IWC – so far, for more than 5,000 whales it has killed. Japan, to its shame, regards welfare issues as irrelevant to the purpose of the IWC and refuses to provide the IWC with time-to-death data. Many countries are profoundly disturbed by this attitude, but Japan sticks by its guns. At the end of an energetic discussion in the late afternoon, Japan stated it has the data and is making progress on reducing time-to-death. It’s just unwilling to share the good news with the IWC, as a matter of principle. Perhaps as another gesture of goodwill, Japan indicated its willingness to share its data with NAMMCO, the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, though it hasn’t actually done so yet.

Day One drew to a close with a chummy discussion about convening a workshop, led by arch rivals Norway and Australia, to deal with net entanglements in northern right whales, and encouraging reports about IWC cooperation with other international organizations, including discussions of ship strikes with IMO, the International Maritime Organisation. And then, amidst the buzz of anticipation over tonight’s party, a welcoming reception at the Alaska Heritage Center, the other shoe dropped.

Denmark, after the meeting broke up, and just before the 6pm deadline for submission of resolutions to be considered the next day, had a single sheet of green paper inserted into everyone’s boxes. Green is the colour used for Schedule Amendments. This one announced Denmark’s intention to seek 2 bowheads, 10 humpbacks and 25 minkes in addition to the hundreds of whales Greenland is presently permitted to kill for aboriginal subsistence needs. Denmark, which had not spoken a word all day, has laid down the gauntlet. The issue of renewing Aboriginal Subsistence quotas by simply rolling over what was agreed in the past, is no longer a simple matter. The US, for one, is in for a sleepless night.

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