The US came into this meeting with a single objective, and first thing this morning it achieved it. Before the coffee break, by a consensus accompanied by lavish praise for science and aboriginal people, the IWC approved a 5 year “block” quota of 280 bowhead whales in the Bering Sea, with a maximum of 67 including “struck and lost” in any one year. It was clear the US had done its homework. The Scientific Committee supported the proposal with a population estimate of 10,500 and indicated that it is increasing at 3.5% per year with the current hunting regime. Slam dunk. Not a single voice in praise of Bowheads was heard, despite the recent news they can live for 200 years. Imagine the memory of history carried by that brain as it traveled from the brink of extinction.
A rush to support and defend “aboriginal” needs is very apparent in this room. No-one, even die hard whale lovers, wants to step out of line. That line (of course) is actually quite blurry. There are real needs among aboriginal people, but it’s hard to avoid the cynicism that these needs are being exploited by others with a completely different agenda. When a similar 5-year block quota (620) for eastern Pacific gray whales was approved, the Makah tribe of Washington State was included, despite the absence of any real proof of nutritional or even cultural need. The real needs are those of Siberia’s Chukotka people who were left starving after the Soviet Union abandoned them. From the account the Russian Federation provided the meeting, these people are still suffering. To its credit, Russia made no attempt to argue for an increased quota, despite the problem of increasing numbers of “stinky” whales that can’t be eaten. No such restraint was shown by Denmark when the issue of Greenland’s needs came up. Whereas Russia was prepared to accept 30kg/year/person for the Chukotka, Denmark insisted that Greenlanders need 100kg/person/year, and because of human population increase (9% over 5 years) the total tonnage of whale meat and blubber has to go up (730 tonnes v the present 670 tonnes). A powerpoint presentation accompanied the argument that Greenland needs to start killing bowhead & humpback whales in addition to the minkes and fin whales it presently kills in order to fill these needs. Fortunately for the proposed new species to be targeted, the Scientific Committee has yet to give its blessing, though what it has said about numbers is ambiguous enough to create a case for the whalers. It was at this point that the camaraderie in the room began to break down. Many nations objected to humpbacks and bowheads being added to Greenland’s list, and eventually, the issue was set aside pending discussions between the opposing views. Tomorrow, we will learn the result.
The most disheartening aspect of the aboriginal discussion and decision making was the granting of a 5 year permission for up to 20 humpbacks to be killed in Bequia, a little island in the St. Vincents and Grenadines that is best known as an anchorage for pleasure yachts which throng to its safe harbour. By any measure, this “hunt” is a horror story. It’s a hang over from not so old whaling days when there were no rules, and humpbacks babies and their mums were targeted by hand harpooners because they were easiest to pick off. It was a tradition of sorts, and it had been going on for quite some time, so the IWC was obliged to deal with it. The upshot was a tentative awarding of an “aboriginal” quota, pending more information and adjustments to make the hunt more “humane”. From the comments in the room, one might conclude that great progress had been made, such was the rush to get through this agenda item. The reality is entirely different. The hunt remains a horror story, and the “aboriginal need” amounts to an illegal commercial enterprise.
The single ray of light that came from this day was the proposal by Brazil, supported by Argentina and South Africa, to create a South Atlantic Sanctuary for whales. This has been an IWC agenda item every year since 1999, and every year the proposal has been turned down because of the need for a ¾ majority. It’s hard to expect a different outcome this time, but the comments that came from so many of the now 75 members of the IWC were as encouraging and inspiring regarding the future of this body, and by extension the whales, as one could hope for. The discussion provoked the only real exchange of fire in the room on this day (Iceland v Brazil) but it brought out the best in many speakers – yes, including the USA, which is now free for another 5 years.