IWC 2012 Day Three
This celebration day for the USA (July 4th) began with a report by the sub-committee on whale killing methods and welfare. Yes, whale welfare has somehow crept into the room, in the guise of “time to death”. Quite possibly, no one disputes the likelihood that suffering is prolonged if death is delayed, but there is no discussion of the agony that accompanies the harpoon. If whales can feel, have feelings, experience emotion, or God forbid grieve over the loss of family and friends, one might never know, provided only that the walls of this room encompass the whole world. The reality of course is that whales do have feelings, do suffer, do grieve, do deserve lives unencumbered by human ignorance, but in this arena it matters naught. Time to death exists as a token, quite possibly intended to deflect attention from the real issue, the horror. Why do so many of us have to fight back tears, or let them flow, when we think about what we humans have done to these innocents?
There was one light moment in this day’s dark beginning, when Russia recalled that 200 years ago, the last time its navy had entered American waters, it had stopped the British fleet and saved the day. Russia’s role in these meetings is quite interesting, mostly quiet but always awake, sometimes the clown but never the fool, ready for a thrust when opportunity comes. Today, amidst the amusement that followed its opening remarks, Russia managed to defect criticism of the horrendous methods it uses in killing gray whales by stating that progress is being made. Time to death is down, number of shots fired is down, new guns have been bought; training by Norwegian and Alaskan whalers has helped too. Things are looking up. Though details were absent, the assurance was enough to satisfy everyone that progress is being made. Tricky word, that one, “progress”. So satisfying in this room.
The next agenda item was far more weighty; socio-economic implications of “small type” whaling. The topic is the decades long desire of Japan to start killing whales in its coastal waters once more. Japan must truly regret having agreed to the whaling Moratorium 3 decades ago, but it did and it’s stuck with the consequences – a prohibition on commercial whaling. Year after year, Japan comes back to the Commission with a slight variation on the theme that many of its coastal communities are suffering because they can’t kill whales in near shore waters. This time, the comparison to aboriginal whaling was drawn so clearly that no one missed the point. Japan, which has a very long history of whaling, feels it is at least as entitled as the whalers of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who began killing whales relatively recently. Just the same, there is broad resistance among pro-whale nations to Japan’s repeated request. Two themes emerged in the commentary of opponents – absence of approval by the Scientific Committee, and commercialization of the hunt. At this point, it seems unlikely that Japan will overcome either obstacle, but there’s little doubt it will keep trying.
Even trickier turf for Japan is the issue of special permits, meaning the loophole in IWC rules that gives member countries the right to issue themselves permits to kill whales for scientific research. Japan claims the science is important, pointing to the 100s of scientific papers it has produced. Opponents denounce the research as either meaningless or trivial, or providing information that can be more easily obtained by non-lethal means. Today, despite Japan’s best efforts, it became very clear early on that it was not going to get anywhere, once again. Quite possibly, the way the agenda was structured doomed it to failure, as the one lever it had – the power to deny the USA its aboriginal whaling quotas – disappeared with yesterday’s ASW vote. One had the impression that Japan’s heart isn’t quite where it was years ago, when there was more passion in the argument. Korea provided more than enough passion to make up for Japan’s lack when it announced its intention to start issuing itself scientific permits to kill minke whales in its national waters. The announcement caught pretty much everyone by surprise. It was roundly denounced by some of the usual suspects and enthusiastically welcomed by others. We will see where it goes, but given Korea’s stated intention to follow protocol, it probably won’t get far. It does, however, reveal something basic about the shaky truce that is holding the IWC together. How long the arguments that favour one group and deprive another can be maintained is anyone’s guess.
The single issue that brings pretty much everyone together is “Safety at Sea”. This is code for Japan’s annual denouncement of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s attempts to deny Japan its “research” whaling objectives in the Antarctic. Year by year, Sea Shepherd is becoming more successful in stopping the hunt. Last season, Japan killed “only” about 1/3 of the nearly 1,000 whales it targeted. With the addition of a fourth ship, Sea Shepherd’s next Antarctic campaign is being called “Zero Tolerance”. The stated objective is to totally stop Japan killing whales in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary. Regardless of whether Sea Shepherd succeeds, Japan will in all probability suffer another humiliating defeat. Its entreaties to the IWC are not exactly falling on deaf ears, but they might as well be. There is widespread agreement that the IWC is the wrong forum for Japan to voice its complaints, as the IWC is powerless to do anything about them. Tomorrow, we will find out whether any progress is to be made on this issue too. Like Greenland’s request, the final conversation about this item was put on hold.
Tomorrow is another day.
By Paul Spong
July 4, 2012