IWC day three: on the edge – June 24th 2009

It became clear today that this 61st meeting of the IWC has only one substantive item on its agenda, Greenland’s attempt to obtain the Commission’s approval for killing humpback whales.  Just before the afternoon session closed (it was running an hour late) Denmark announced that its request on behalf of Greenland was being reduced from 10 humpbacks per year for 3 years, to 10 humpbacks for “just” one year. Denmark seemed very pleased with the change, and expressed confidence that consensus would now occur.  Possibly wanting to avoid an open dog fight, Chairman Hogarth put off debate until tomorrow morning, urging delegates to talk about it over night, and enjoy the wine at the NGO reception, being careful not to get lost on the way home.  It’s not difficult to see what’s afoot here. Reliable sources say that the US has been strong arming (or charming) delegates all day, no doubt at the behest of Chairman Hogarth, who is also the head of the US delegation, telling (or asking) them to agree to Greenland’s modest proposal when it comes to the floor tomorrow morning.  There seems to be a vague if not explicit threat in the message, i.e. that unless Greenland (read, whalers, aboriginal or not) gets its way, the delicate state of “future” negotiations could be in jeopardy.  Well.  In the first instance, everyone knows that once Greenland’s toe is in the door, the door will remain open; and beyond that, the floodgates that hide the “cultural” coastal whaling that Chairman Hogarth dreams of solving the entire IWC puzzle stand ready.   

The tactics being employed are a combination of stealth and brute (or subtle) force.  As noted yesterday, Denmark waited until the last possible moment to submit its resolution, and it didn’t give the Aboriginal Whaling sub-committee any clues, so the plot wasn’t even visible to most delegates until they came into the room yesterday.  Just the same, wily pro-whale NGO’s, accustomed to the underhanded ways of its opposition, were ready, and immediately set about changing minds and (possible) votes.  Recognising that US policy is in flux, and that President Obama has promised to base decisions on science, WDCS set up a page on its web site aimed at flooding the White House with ‘save Greenland humpbacks’ messages, hoping the US delegation would receive orders from Washington to back off.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings; in the meantime, Greenland humpbacks stand at a (flensing) knife’s edge.

Speaking of NGOs, the highlight of this day occurred early on, when 6 NGOs, 3 on each side representing their respective communities, spoke to the assembled delegates.  The pro-whaling speeches, from indigenous and commercial whalers, were full of heart, need, and fear.  It was impossible to resist the charm of a Maori blessing, and the urgency of a Chukotka plea for understanding; nor was it easy to evade the concern felt by whalers’ families as their loved ones headed into Antarctic waters inhabited by fearsome enemies.  But the combination of history, knowledge, science, logic and heartfelt concern for the dangers the oceans, the whales and our world are facing now that was provided by the pro-whale NGOs, though understated in tone, was forceful and utterly convincing.  Dr. Sidney Holt, who has certainly been involved in the whaling debate far longer than anyone else in the room, announced his conclusion that the only possible way “forward” is to phase out and close down commercial and “scientific” whaling, forever.  No more moratoriums or limited opportunities, just stop, period, and within 3 years of the decision being made.  Given that Dr. Holt had been an ardent advocate of setting in place a system that would provide limited opportunity for whaling, while protecting vulnerable whale populations, his view provided a clean and welcome counterpoint to the messy manipulations of Chairman Hogarth.  Should it be accepted, it would enable “us” to get on with what is critically important, saving endangered oceans and our precious planet.

It is interesting to note things that get the room going, united or divided.  Whale watching is one such issue.  It is enthusiastically endorsed by numerous IWC members, including former whaling nations who sing its praises.  By one account, it is now a 2 billion dollar industry, a sum close enough to bank bailout numbers to raise interest among even die hard holdouts who cling to the belief that the only sustainable “use” whales of lies in their dead bodies.  For a while this morning, it seemed possible that complaints about the benefits of whale watching flowing only to rich countries might translate into an initiative, suggested by Monaco & others, that might see whale watching know-how transferred to poorer nations which would directly benefit (and which Japan finds easy to persuade).  It hasn’t happened yet, but perhaps a seed has been planted.  The one thing that rocked the room and rolled everyone into the same corner, scrambling to be heard, was the issue of safety at sea, which translates into the issue of Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling activism in the Antarctic.  A video shot from the mast of a Japanese whaler, accompanied by panicky shouts from the crew, was universally accepted as evidence of blatant aggression, which soon became evidence of piracy equivalent to that now happening off Somalia; and the utter gall of the pirates’ leader, observed lounging by the pool in the hotel next door, was beyond belief.  It took an hour before the steam was spent, and though in the end it was acknowledged that after 30 years of outrage, Paul Watson would probably be back for more, it was also acknowledged that the IWC was probably powerless to prevent him from returning to the Antarctic. 

And so the show goes on.  Surprisingly, tomorrow will probably be the last day.  This belief, encouraged by Chairman Hogarth, does however rely on his expectation that consensus will occur around Greenland’s humpback goal.  If he is wrong, the road ahead to the end of this meeting could be long.

For more information & insights about IWC 2009:

Photos by Tim Holt

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