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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 June, 2003, 20:37 GMT 21:37 UK
Whale commission future 'in jeopardy'
Kirby, BBC
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in Berlin

The International Whaling Commission has ended its annual meeting here, leaving many delegates with a resounding sense that nothing has changed.

Giant inflatable whale outside Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Activists are concerned that countries do not contribute to the commission's work

The meeting cost close to 500,000 ($840,000) and got through 750,000 photocopied documents.

It proclaimed itself firmly in favour of the conservation of whales.

But the killing will continue unchecked, and the commission's own future is now perhaps in more serious jeopardy than ever.

The IWC's committees began a round of preliminary meetings on 24 May, and the political work of the 51 member states' delegations lasted for four full days.

Norway whaler aims harpoon [pic courtesy of High North Alliance]
Whaling countries say the species they kill are abundant enough for their catches
Throughout, the ritual unfolded in its time-honoured way; neither the whaling countries nor their conservationist opponents showed any quarter, or expected any.

The whalers - Japan, Norway and Iceland - asked for permission to kill whales for research, or said they would do it anyway because they had refused to accept the 1986 moratorium on the commercial hunt.

All are entitled to their catches under IWC rules. All were told they should not go whaling; all will do so despite the IWC.

They in turn told the meeting the species they are killing are abundant enough for their catches.

They argued for progress towards a lifting of the moratorium, on which they say the science supports them.

Prioritising conservation

As usual, there was no progress, nor can there be before next year's meeting in Italy.

So far, so perfectly predictable, and for anything that had been achieved, you could conclude that everyone might as well have stayed at home.

There was one significant change, though, and it went by the name of the Berlin Initiative.

That commits the IWC to making whale conservation a priority - not, as till now, so there are enough whales for the whalers to catch - but simply for the sake of the whales themselves.

The conservation-minded countries - still a majority at the IWC, though a dwindling one - hailed the initiative's adoption as a historic achievement.

'Terminal irrelevance'

But the whalers say it is a fundamental change to the rules, turning the IWC into something they would never have joined - a club to save whales, and to prevent them ever being hunted again.

It's a global body, and it's up to all of us on all sides of the debate to make the thing work
International Fund for Animal Welfare's Vassili Papastavrou
They are so incandescent with rage that they are talking of setting up a rival to the commission.

They often do, but this time they say they really are serious.

More ominously, they now claim the backing of politicians, parliamentarians and publics at home.

So the commission, paralysed by the two sides' hostility, appears to be drifting closer to terminal irrelevance.

'Making it work'

But the story does not have to end in tears.

The head of the UK delegation, Richard Cowan, told BBC News Online that the meeting had been "quite positive", and he hoped some of the European Union's new members might feel encouraged to join the IWC.

Vassili Papastavrou, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: "The profoundly disappointing thing about this meeting is the number of countries that appear to be joining simply to vote and make political points rather than to contribute to the commission's serious work.

"It's all we've got. It's a global body, and it's up to all of us on all sides of the debate to make the thing work."

How to do that, though, is what nobody seems yet to have discovered.

Conservation 'ultimatum' illegal say whalers
19 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Science seeks clues to pygmy whale
19 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Japan threatens whaling walkout
16 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Blue whales show gradual growth
17 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Norway 'undermining' whaling ban
13 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Nets 'kill 800 cetaceans a day'
13 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Battle joined over world's whales
11 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Extinction nears for whales and dolphins
14 May 03  |  Science/Nature


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