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Last Updated: Monday, 19 June 2006, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
How did the anti-whalers lose?
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, St Kitts

Whale dives (BBC)
Pro-whaling nations call the vote a wake-up call

The Flipper movies; Free Willy; huge humpbacks gloriously breaching; a toy with big friendly eyes to comfort a child to sleep.

In quite a few Western households, these are the whale images we are most familiar with; here, it is unthinkable that in the cold Antarctic Ocean it is in any way acceptable for the metal boats of Japan to skewer these creatures to death.

So if the rich West cares so much, how did it allow the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to reach a position where, for the first time in 20 years, it has endorsed the idea of commercial whaling?

Did Western governments talk the talk on caring for whales, but not walk the walk in the corridors of international diplomacy? Did they work as hard as they should have done to build an anti-whaling coalition within the IWC?

"I think they have been working hard, but evidently they haven't been working quite hard enough," said Mark Simmonds, international director of science at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

"Japan, as we have feared for some time, has now actually outpaced them."

Beauty contest

Japan's pursuit of a return to commercial whaling has certainly been impressive in its consistency.

Each year, new nations join. This time it was the turn of the Marshall Islands, Guatemala and Cambodia to sign up and line up in the Japanese camp; although in the event, no Guatemalan delegation arrived.

Anti-whalers could claim just one recruit, Israel.

Joji Morishita (AP)
My hope is that with this vote, some of the countries which are potentially in the middle will think it's better to talk and come to some kind of compromise
Joji Morishita, Japan's deputy whaling commissioner
Australia's Environment Minister Ian Campbell was his usual robust self in defending the action which his team, along with those of New Zealand, Britain, the US and Brazil, has taken in consolidating the anti-whaling camp.

"We won victories this weekend because we brought new countries in over the last two years, and we peeled votes [away from the pro-whaling bloc]," he told the BBC News website.

"We've achieved both of these aims. I'm confident that the level of co-operation and action that happened this year as a result of this coalition will transfer into even bigger results next year."

Short of tying aid to votes in the IWC - a practice which would leave them open to a charge of hypocrisy, as that is exactly what they accuse Japan of doing - what more could the self-styled "pro-conservation nations" be doing?

Some activists here believe they need to get heavy with selected developing countries; others would like to see them using aid to establish ecotourism and whale-watching industries.

Mark Simmonds believes one of the priorities is to target neighbouring, probably sympathetic countries and bring them into the IWC - and this, he said, can begin in Europe.

"One of the first things they've got to do is to look around our near neighbours in Europe and Scandinavia and ask them to stand up and be counted," he said.

"I think the situation of Denmark is particularly extraordinary. We know on the Danish mainland that most people have the same feeling about whales and whale conservation that people in Britain do, so to actually see them vote in favour of this declaration is quite remarkable.

"And I think what's going on is that Denmark also represents the pro-whaling kingdoms of the Faroe Islands and Greenland; but that's not enough, so certainly I shall be talking to the UK delegation, and probably we shall ask our minister [Ben Bradshaw],who has been here, to talk to their Danish ministers, and find out how we came to this position."

Some countries recently admitted to the European Union have been advised by a "word in the ear" that it would be "a good idea" for them to join the IWC. Some activists believe that Britain and its fellow EU old-timers such as France and Germany should recruit all member states into the Commission.

Nothing special

All this presumes, of course, that other societies see whales through the same eyes, as special creatures which should never be harmed.

Maybe Western citizens of the Free Willy generation are in a minority. Maybe the wider world really does not care more for whales and dolphins than it does for chickens and cockroaches.

If these other countries don't join, they will have seen one of the great environmental achievements of the last century washed away by the whalers this century
Ian Campbell, Australia's environment minister
Japan's position is that whales are not innately special - and they are not alone.

"We treat every living marine resource the same," said Iceland's whaling commissioner Stefan Asmundsson.

"We believe in the principle of sustainable use, whether that is for fish or whales or any other marine resource.

"Those who are here against whaling mostly take the stance that when it comes to fishing or hunting of land mammals or whatever, they can accept sustainable use; but whales they make a special case out of, and we don't accept that.

"We think that whales should be treated in the same way as any other living marine resource."

If that view is more widespread in the world than the Flipper generation imagines, Japan will presumably be able to steam ahead and turn this single-vote majority into a return to commercial whaling.

Its deputy whaling commissioner Joji Morishita certainly thinks it is possible.

"My hope is that with this vote, some of the countries which are potentially in the middle will think it's better to talk and come to some kind of compromise," he said.

"So I hope this one vote will trigger the movement of more talk, more dialogue and a willingness to compromise."

Under pressure

There is even a conservation case to be made for compromise.

Currently, Japan takes more than 1,000 whales each year in its "scientific" whaling programmes which it runs independently of any international jurisdiction.

The argument goes that as commercial hunting would be under international control, it could be made more humane, and could also result in fewer whales being killed if catch quotas were set low enough.

Whale schematic (BBC)

The vast majority of conservation groups represented here do not share that view. But through their links with national delegations, some believe that a handful of countries may indeed opt for compromise.

The US will find itself in a particularly delicate position at next year's meeting when the annual catch of its Native American communities in Alaska comes up for review.

With its majority intact or even enhanced, Japan could block renewal, a prospect which would play very badly in US political circles.

In public, the anti-whaling bloc is intact, with the US and its allies lining up shoulder to shoulder.

In practice, the issue will not be able to remain outside the cut and thrust of the wider political stage.

But Ian Campbell agrees with conservation groups which, almost unanimously, have called the vote "a wake-up call". He thinks the alarm clock bell will end up reverberating loudly and unpleasantly around Japan's ears.

"I think it's going to get harder and harder for Japan. I think the fact that they're getting closer to toppling the pro-conservation majority for the first time in two decades will help us to get new countries to join," he said.

"If these other countries don't join, they will have seen one of the great environmental achievements of the last century washed away by the whalers this century; and I know there are a lot of conservation-minded countries out there that will not allow that to happen."

What the vote means for the future of commercial whaling


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