IWC St Kitts wrapup – June 22nd 2006

IWC St Kitts wrapup

A Wakeup Call

Pro-whale forces left the 58th meeting of the International Whaling Commission in St. Kitts bloodied but not beaten. It wasn’t exactly like dodging a bullet, but things didn’t turn out as badly for whales as many thought would happen. Japan, which has invested hundreds of millions of USD in its quest to resume commercial whaling, was frustrated at every turn but one.

We can be sure that Japan will make much of the single vote that went its way. It cannot claim a triumph, but it can claim the (im)moral high ground.

“The St. Kitts Declaration” (which Japan won because of Denmark’s support) calls on the IWC to return to its 1946 beginnings, i.e. concentrate solely on issues that relate to the regulation of commercial whaling. Of course, commercial whaling is already happening under the guise of science, and Japan can expand its “research whaling” as much as it wants, any time it decides to. But it has a problem – vast stores of whale meat (over 5000 tons) sit unused in freezers. In recent years the Japanese government has attempted to dispose of the surplus in free school lunches. Now it seems the government can’t even give enough of the stuff away to kids to solve its problem. The Japanese public lost its taste for whale meat long ago, and even aggressive marketing campaigns haven’t convinced more than 5% of the people to eat whale meat regularly. So what is the government to do with all this uneaten product? The answer is simple but complicated – sell it internationally. At the moment, it is impossible to know whether such a strategy would work, because international trade in whale products is presently banned.

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has for many years resisted “down-listing” minke whales, an action that would permit trade to open up, despite repeated attempts by Japan. The reason is that CITES has been told by the IWC that progress was being made on the resolution of issues (i.e. re the Revised Management Plan) that would eventually lead to renewed commercial whaling. When properly regulated whaling begins again (so goes the argument) there will be no need to bar trade, but for the moment, trade restrictions should remain in place. Despite the fact that the IWC has been largely stalemated for years, CITES has gone along with the majority view and refused Japan’s entreaties. Now, with the St. Kitts Declaration in its hands, Japan can go to CITES with a document stating that the IWC majority believes differently, i.e. that there is no longer an impediment to the resumption of “sustainable” whaling, and moreover, that the IWC is incapable of resolving core issues. It’s a clever ploy, one that may very well work because CITES decisions tend to favour the advocates of “sustainable use of living resources”. Fortunately for whales, the next CITES meeting comes after the next IWC meeting, so the tide may yet turn again.

If there were no truly startling developments at this year’s IWC meeting, it was only because of the vagaries of chance, almost as if the fate of whales depended on the turn of a card at the casino next door to the meeting room. We’ll probably never know why the Senegal delegate didn’t show up until the 3rd day, or why Gambia and Togo couldn’t ante up the cash for its dues, giving them the right to vote, until after Japan had been already been knocked down in the opening rounds. What we do know is that with these votes the outcome of the meeting may well have been very different, and the IWC a radically changed organisation.

What we also know is that this 58th meeting of the IWC was a wakeup call. By the slimmest of margins, nothing really changed for whales, but we can be sure that Japan is already hard at work taking advantage of its propaganda victory, eye on the prize.

Only renewed and redoubled efforts for the whales can avert the “turning point of history” Japan so mysteriously seeks.

Listen now

Stream our live hydrophone audio