Under the volcano – June 22 2009

This year’s meeting of the international Whaling Commission (IWC) is its 61st, and is being held in Portugal’s Atlantic island paradise of Madeira.  There, starting today, delegations from more than 80 countries are once again gathered to debate and determine the fate of whales.  It seems oddly appropriate that the meeting is being held in a casino shaped to resemble a volcano, and that the floors it occupies lie between the gambling level below, and a night club above.  If nothing else is apparent, what does seem clear at first glance, and from the conversation on the first day, is that this meeting will accomplish nothing more than another spinning of wheels, a frivolous spending of time and money, with a jolly good time had by all, except those who lose – in this case, the whales. 

This is Chairman Hogarth’s last IWC meeting.  He is retiring to Florida, taking up a more relaxed form of life in a university setting, and taking with him a banner from the entrance to the Madeira venue that he asked everyone to sign when he opened the meeting this morning, because “I consider y’all great friends”.  Though the request was made in the lyrical voice of a Virginian, it will be interesting to see how many signatures he takes away, and whose they are, because Chairman Hogarth, despite quite possibly good intentions, has not been a friend to whales during his tenure. 

A typical Bush appointee, Chairman Hogarth came into the scene totally naïve, but soon formed firm opinions about how to solve the “problem” of the IWC, and the impasse it has been stagnating in.  By the time he took over the chair 3 years ago, he had decided that the only way “forward” was to craft a deal between whalers and whale lovers that would give each entrenched side something but not everything they wanted.  He has spent the last 3 years engaged in initially totally secret and eventually semi-open negotiations among a small group of member nations chosen to represent the views of the larger body.  His aim was to reach a deal in private and then have the full membership of the IWC endorse it by a ¾ vote.  Bit by bit, some details of the deal leaked out, and it became clear that what Chairman Hogarth was proposing amounted to surrender of not just the moral principles the US has stood for in the past, but also the scientific principles that supposedly govern IWC decisions.  What he was willing to give away were the lives of whales living near enough to Japan to be hunted and killed by land based operations,  plus the lives of whales in the Antarctic who would continue to be killed under Japan’s “scientific” whaling programme.  In return, Japan would supposedly scale back its “research” operations, and possibly even end its slaughter of whales in Antarctic waters altogether, eventually.  The deal amounted to handing out crumbs and carrots, and there was no stick to bat it along, so it was doomed from the start.  Also doomed were more than two thousand whales whose lives were taken, often in terrible agony, while the talks dragged on.  By the time this meeting started, it looked like everyone had retreated to their own corners, and despite the continued entreaties for polite discourse by Chairman Hogarth, remained staring each other down.

Below the veneer of politeness in the room, the usual sniping has already started.  Japan felt ignored at one point, and when it was recognized said it should perhaps shout next time because raising its flag hadn’t worked.  Japan then went on to say that it wasn’t providing the IWC with death times data for the whales it kills because all it got them was criticism. Norway managed to get its usual position on whale welfare (not relevant) into the record; and New Zealand pointed out that after traveling 40 hours to get to Madeira, a soul boosting dose of whale watching was all it took to restore their delegation to health.  So the lines are already drawn.  There were also moments of farce, with Japan taking the prize by claiming that an increase in bycatch for the endangered “J stock” of minke whales must mean their population is increasing.

Tomorrow, the only real business of the meeting will get underway, a discussion of the “future” of the IWC, i.e. a continuation of Chairman Hogath’s search for an amiable solution to the issues that have stymied the IWC ever since 1982, when the moratorium on commercial whaling was voted into being.  Since then, the lives of more than 40,000 whales have been wasted.  For this Chairman, it’s a last rolling of the dice; for the whales, it’s a quite different game of chance.

For more information & insights about IWC 2009:

Listen now

Stream our live hydrophone audio