Rays of light for whales – June 6th 2007

The predominant feeling from the whales’ side at the end of IWC59, despite the downbeats, was one of optimism. The contrast with the feeling in St. Kitts a year earlier was so marked that one couldn’t help but feel that (yet another) turning point may have been reached, this time, for the whales.

New membership explains part of the feeling, because once again the voices of conservation and caring achieved a solid majority. But it was also the refreshingly clear quality of the new voices. They were not shy, nor was their thinking scripted or muddied. Coming from Europe and Latin America (Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Ecuador) and joined by Costa Rica, which returned after a long absence due to fees owed, they brought with them the certainty that advocacy for whales will only become stronger as time passes. This is really good news for whales. Coupled with it is Japan’s difficulty in bringing new recruits to its cause.

This year, only Laos joined on Japan’s side before the meeting, and Guinea-Bissau during it. Their votes made no difference to the balance, partly because the Solomon Islands didn’t show up to support Japan, and nor did Nicaragua. Guatemala seems to be wavering, casting some votes with the pro-whale side at this meeting. Moreover, public education efforts in the Caribbean may bear the fruit of reversals of positions or absenteeism among Japan’s lackey states in the not-too-distant future. It is apparent that Japan’s votes-for-aid scheme is falling apart, or at least that it is not succeeding at the pace Japan had hoped. This must be bad news for Japan.

Also bad news must be the increasing recognition internationally that Japan’s conduct at the IWC is essentially corrupt. Though perhaps legal, buying votes in international fora is certainly frowned upon by the world community. The targets of Japan’s strategy are inevitably small or impoverished nations that almost by definition, if not inclination, are vulnerable to Japan’s largesse. Quite apart from the significant foreign aid being dispensed (in the Caribbean alone, at least $100 million US over 6 years) being wined and dined and housed in great hotels around the world must provide a dreamlike level of comfort to these representatives. Their only tasks are to learn a few simple scripts, enunciate with heart, and vote accordingly. A cheerful camaraderie resonates among the members of Japan’s backup team that is at times quite instructive. One fly-on-the-wall NGO at this year’s meeting reported the following:

I was in a crowded elevator at the Captain Cook Hotel, in which three French speaking African delegates had not noticed my presence, or not realized that I am French speaking. One of them, a man from a Maghreb country that joined the IWC as part of Japan’s pro-whaling political drive a few years ago said in French “Oooops, I’m taking weight on, got to be careful!” One of the women with him, a delegate from one of the sub-Saharan countries known to have been ‘bought’ by Japan to support their pro-whaling agenda, giggled and said: “That’s not surprising, with all the money we make with these meetings!”

Many regard Japan’s IWC behaviour as an outrage, even despicable. It is certainly unethical. Such a world view cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be helpful to Japan.

Very evident in Japan’s chaotic behaviour at the end of the Anchorage meeting was deep frustration and anger born of failure. In a sense, Japan has nowhere to turn. Its threats to leave the IWC and form its own whalers’ club if it doesn’t get its way, repeated annually for 20 or more years, are almost certainly empty. At this point, Japan can literally do anything it wishes to whales, including killing endangered species. This means it has little incentive for change, beyond satisfying a few small communities. The chances of meeting their wishes, under any regime approved by the IWC’s Scientific Committee, are small. So why rock the boat?

The future of the IWC was very much on the minds of participants at this 59th meeting. Considerable time was devoted to discussing the outcomes of 3 “future” oriented meetings held in the past year. One, hosted by Brazil & held in Buenos Aires, brought Latin America together for the purpose of looking forward. Another, hosted by Japan & held in Tokyo, brought the whalers’ club together for the purpose of “normalization” of the IWC, i.e. looking backward. The third, convened by the Pew Foundation and held at the United Nations in New York just a month prior to the Anchorage meeting, brought together voices and analysts from within and outside the IWC, with a view to examining its history and identifying potential solutions to its problems. Chaired by New Zealand’s IWC Commissioner and former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the Pew Symposium brought the word “modernization” to the IWC table. By this meeting’s end, it had become part of the common vocabulary. The upshot of all these external initiatives was agreement that a new inclusive attempt should be made to find a way forward. A small working group was formed to plan (yet another) meeting. Eventually, we will find out whether the initiative succeeds, and though there is little reason for optimism as to success, the effort alone seems worthwhile.

Pale or even bright light looming at the end of the tunnel doesn’t even begin to diminish the gloom of some of the decisions made, and information tabled at this meeting.

The Scientific Committee had the sad duty of reporting the probable extinction of the baiji. This little river porpoise, almost as a miracle, had found a way to adapt to fresh water and make a living in China’s vast Yangtze River long before humans appeared on its banks. Poisons from industries, entrapments in fishing nets, along with dwindling space and food resources had threatened the baiji’s existence long ago. For many years the IWC’s Scientific Committee has recommended urgent action be taken. China, while expressing regret at the baiji’s demise at this meeting, insisted it had done all that was humanly possible to save the species. The words of the Scientific Committee’s report tell a different story: “The Committee expressed its great concern that, despite extensive scientific discourse for more than two decades, little effort was made to implement any real conservation measures for this species.” As clear notice of what may come, the Committee’s report went on to add: “In hindsight, the extinction of this species is not surprising; species cannot be expected to save themselves. The extinction of this species (the first human-caused cetacean extinction) also underscores the risk to other endangered species of small cetaceans and particularly the vaquita. Such highly endangered species require swift and decisive human intervention before they are lost forever.”

Mexico’s vaquita, which inhabits the northern waters of the Sea of Cortez, is losing its tiny population, currently estimated at just 213, at a net 10% per year, meaning it is facing imminent extinction. Like the baiji, humans are responsible for its plight. An urgent resolution, adopted by consensus at this meeting, called for international collaboration in finding solutions. Because the vaquita’s mortality is primarily caused by entanglements in fishing nets, the Scientific Committee “strongly” recommends a buy-out programme that includes compensation for fishing communities, along with enforcement and control measures. Next year, we will find out if this scientific advice is being acted on. The concluding words of the Scientific Committee provide a chilling “what-if” scenario: “The extinction of the baiji serves as an urgent warning regarding the vulnerability of extremely small populations of cetaceans. The baiji was the first cetacean species driven to extinction by humans. Without prompt, decisive action, the vaquita, which was only described fifty years ago, will soon become extinct.”

The two saddest decisions made in Anchorage are the most difficult to explain. One was the renewal of permission for humpback mothers and their babies to be killed for “aboriginal” purposes on the island of Bequia in the Caribbean. The “aboriginal” claim is nonsense, and the hunt is brutal, so why were no voices raised in opposition? To the contrary, words of praise were heard. Why? The other infinitely sad moment came when the Commission voted, by a slim 3/4 majority, to allow Greenland to kill bowhead whales again in the eastern Arctic. The Scientific Committee has not approved the hunt, and there is no human need that cannot be satisfied by other means. Changes in just a few votes, including that of the UK, would have reversed the outcome. Apparently, by some sleight of hand, Denmark had convinced the UK & some other pro-whale nations to support Greenland’s bowhead ambitions in exchange for its support of a resolution praising non-consumptive uses of whales. The resolution amounted to words on paper, and was essentially meaningless. The Commission’s decision will have real consequences in flesh and blood. The exchange defies reason. Why? The magnificent bowheads of the eastern Arctic have had a devastating history at the hands of humans, who drove them nearly to extinction. Now, after a long pause teetering at the brink, they are showing signs of a small recovery. Why not allow them to pursue and consolidate it?

Finally, one more note of optimism. Australia is holding national elections later this year, and the opposition Labour party has a clear lead in the polls. Australians are naturally outraged at Japan’s announced intention to begin killing humpback whales, in addition to fins and minkes, and Labour has stated that if it is returned to power it will send Australia’s navy to the Antarctic to protect whales in its Antarctic territory. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd may be one kind of uncomfortable opposition for Japan’s “research” whalers, but fair dinkum Aussie warships will be quite another. Chances are their presence alone will save whale lives. And that will be more good news for whales.

Nothing said in the above diminishes the urgent need to rally more support for whales. Turning a corner back from the “St. Kitts Declaration” of just a year ago by no means means that whales are safe again. To the contrary, Iceland continues to pursue its commercial whaling ambitions, Norway carries on uninhibited, and Japan refuses to give way on any of its deplorable JARPA II “research” agenda. If CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) which is meeting at this moment in the The Hague, agrees that trade in whale products can open again, whales are in for a very rough ride once more.

It may be true that the whales’ allies are on the ascendance at the IWC at this moment, but the shifting sands of this inept and corruptible organization are such that the game is still wide open. To set the stage for the whales’ future in cement, more nations need to join their cause, the US needs to re-engage for whales, and the encouraging front that opened in Anchorage needs to widen and deepen, until it covers the whole field.

China’s baiji, now almost certainly extinct. Photo courtesy of the Chinese Institute of Hydrobiology.

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