Japan loses round one – June 16th 2006

IWC St Kitts Day One

Japan loses round one

Day One at St. Kitts began with an opening ceremony in which a priest exhorted God to punish Satanists who believe whales should be protected; a fervent appeal to Spirits; energetic music from an island band; a hastily corrected reference to “The International Whalers Commission”; and a forthright denial of official corruption by the St. Kitts Minister who welcomed the delegates and declared his country entirely free to make its own decisions.

To their surprise, chagrin & embarrassment, Japan lost 2 big votes on the opening day of IWC 58. One defeat was over an attempt to take small cetaceans off the IWC agenda, something that Japan has attempted many times in the past, but failed to achieve. Coming into the meeting, Japan must have felt confident of victory because they brought a delegation from the coastal town of Taiji with them. Taiji is the site of the notorious “drive fisheries” in which dolphins are herded into a small bay and slaughtered or taken into captivity. The bay is known as the “bay of blood” and the horrific scene taking place in it is a source of shame to knowledgeable Japanese people. Unfortunately, Japan’s media largely ignores the annual massacre, so it is better known internationally than inside Japan. It seems fairly clear that, among other things, Japan wants small cetaceans off the IWC agenda in order to remove a potential spotlight on what many regard as a crime against nature. Japan lost by just 2 votes, 30-32-1, partly because 2 of its client states, Senegal and Guatemala weren’t present, and partly because Gambia and Togo, having failed to pay their fees, couldn’t vote. Also helpful to the result, Denmark abstained, and to the delight of many, Belize voted against Japan.

At lunch the pro-whale faction was feeling much better than expected. The pro-whalers, presumably feeling somewhat worse, got busy. By the end of the lunch break, Gambia had paid its fees – the story going round was that their delegate handed the Secretariat $10,000 USD in cash. Perhaps they’d spent the morning at the casino next door to the IWC meeting room & won big? Whatever the truth may be, Gambia was now eligible to vote (with Japan).

The afternoon session began with Japan proposing, once again, that secret balloting be introduced to the IWC. In making its argument Japan explained that secrecy would prevent intimidation of small, impoverished nations by bullies on the other side who want to deny the rights of sovereign nations to freely make decisions in their own best interests. Japan’s woeful litany of abuses provoked the audience to laughter at one point, causing the chairman to intervene. In opposing Japan, New Zealand and others pointed out that openness is fundamental to democracy. This was the point of view that ultimately prevailed. The vote was again close, 30-33-1, and again Japan lost. This time the vote split slightly differently, with Denmark voting against Japan and the Solomon Islands (a Japanese client) abstaining. Again to the delight of many, Belize opposed Japan. Gambia voted with Japan but Senegal was still absent from the meeting, and Togo had not yet paid & couldn’t vote. Perhaps there was another run to the casino at that point, because shortly afterwards, Togo paid up and became eligible to vote. By the end of the day Senegal had arrived, further boosting Japan’s support. By then, the meeting was listening to the report of the Scientific Committee and there were no further votes.

The Scientific Committee reported accumulating evidence that minke whale populations in the Antarctic have declined precipitously over the past 20 years, and may be at just 60% of their 1985 level. As is often the case with science, further work is needed before a definitive conclusion is reached, but year-by-year the situation becomes clearer. Antarctic minke whales are in trouble. Japan targets these whales in so-called “research” whaling, and last year decided to double the numbers killed annually to nearly 1,000. As bad as things may be getting for Antarctic minkes, they are far worse for western Pacific gray whales. The Scientific Committee estimates their total population at only about 120 individuals, and among this tiny number there are just 23 mature females. Adding to this dismal picture was the report that Japanese fishermen killed 3 adult female gray whales by entangling them in nets last year. Responding to this news, Japan insisted that it discourages fishermen from drowning gray whales in nets and in fact urges them not to. This may well be true, but under Japanese law, fishermen are able to keep and sell the meat of whales “accidentally” caught in fishing nets, and it may be difficult for them to make the proper discrimination. The fact remains that western Pacific gray whales are facing biological extinction, and Japan is not helping them. Nor, it must be said, are the international oil companies conducting seismic exploration in critical gray whale habitat near the Sakhalin Islands.

More will come from the Scientific Committee in the days ahead, beginning with its work on the “RMP” and “RMS”, the management devices under which commercial whaling will begin again, if the whalers have their way. At the end of Day One, the mood in the pro-whale camp was one of cautious optimism tinged with worry. With the support of Denmark, Togo, Gambia and Senegal, Japan may at last be in control of a majority. Everyone is counting votes.

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