The Damocles effect

The feeling in the room this morning was perceptibly lighter than earlier this week.  It wasn’t just me, I checked around, and others felt it too.  Yesterday’s decision to abandon the attempt to toss the moratorium into history produced a ripple that reached not just the diehard whale savers, but the wafflers and even those who were convinced that knocking off a few whales would ultimately be good for the rest.   It was a difficult formula to sell, so once the attempt had been made, and failed, the logical next thing to do was move on.  Possibly, the mental relief this brought explains the better sleep many participants had last night.  Today began with smiles.

Unfortunately, the turf the meeting moved onto is comprised of a tricky substance with a familiar feel, so the smiles soon turned into groans.  “Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling” is what has transformed the USA from the whales’ greatest hope into a whalers’ whipping post.   Every time the IWC debates the renewal of quotas for the killing of bowhead whales that provide food for Alaska’s northern communities, the USA finds itself in a very difficult place, wanting on the one hand to satisfy the needs and demands of its aboriginal people, and on the other the wishes of Americans who love whales.  The whalers, led by Japan, have become very adept at applying subtle (or open) pressure on US delegations at IWC meetings.  If the US comes down too hard on the whalers, they might react, and in a fit of pique, refuse to help Alaska’s indigenous people.  Knowing that the axe (or sword) could fall, the US tends to walk on tippy toes at these meetings.

It is understandable that the US fights hard for bowhead quotas, and to a large extent the broad American public has come to accept this.  Just the same, the issue puts the US in a very difficult position at IWC meetings when the bowhead quota is on the table.  That wasn’t necessarily the case this year, as the present 5 year block quota runs through 2012, but aboriginal quotas were worked into the “deal” that fell apart yesterday.  Quite possibly, the greatest appeal of the deal for the USA was that it would settle the bowhead quota issue for 13 years, a very long time in IWC and US politics.

Last night, as the meeting broke up, the US hastily filed a request with the IWC Secretariat that would separate aboriginal quotas from the rest of the “package” that formed the dead deal.  The move was immediately seized on by Japan, which sees the US request as one more chance to raise the “future” issue at this meeting.  For Japan, the opportunity to poke away at US resolve was irresistible.   As a consequence, the meeting has once again become embroiled in the debate over aboriginal whaling.  It seems quite doubtful that US delegates are getting much sleep tonight.

One bright spot from this day – at the very end, for a little over half an hour, NGOS were finally given a chance to speak!

Posted by Paul Spong

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