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Last Updated: Monday, 20 June, 2005, 04:54 GMT 05:54 UK
Pro-whaling bloc loses first vote
By Richard Black
BBC Environment correspondent, Ulsan, South Korea

South Korean whaling protest (AFP)
The annual meeting is a clash of positions and cultures
Pro-whaling nations have lost two early votes as this year's International Whaling Commission meeting began.

Conservationists feared Japan, boosted by four new members, might be able to command a pro-whaling majority.

But Japan lost votes on a proposal to ban the discussion of new whale sanctuaries, and a procedural motion.

But a number of controversial proposals remain on the table, such as abandoning the IWC's programme on whale welfare, which looks at killing methods.

If Japan is unable to command a majority here, as it had hoped, it could play its final card and leave the IWC altogether.

This option would have far reaching implications for conservation and perhaps for Japan's relations with other countries such as Australia and Britain with whom it is generally on friendly terms.

Conservation groups are concerned at the impact on whales and their close relatives such as dolphins and porpoises.

Find out about the different endangered whale species.

"The vote has been on a knife-edge for a couple of years, and we've been wondering at what point the simple majority would fall towards the whalers," Mark Simmonds, director of science for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, told BBC News.

"And with these four new countries coming in, it could really be that they've got it at this point."

The IWC's four new members are Cameroon, Gambia, Nauru and Togo.

Although there is no indication yet of which way they will vote, conservation groups allege that Japan has a history of effectively buying the votes of developing countries through foreign aid.

Japan should have the freedom to hunt whatever they like within their borders

That view was challenged by Yoshimasa Hayashi, a member of Japan's upper house.

"Japanese ODA [Overseas Development Aid] is decided by the government by consultation with the ruling party, and that doesn't include anything about a pro- or anti-whaling stance," he told BBC News.

In fact, he said, nations which oppose whaling, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, recruit their allies into the IWC.

"Hungary and Czech Republic have no history of whaling, and they joined IWC after the moratorium."

'Research killing'

The moratorium, and what should come after it, is the really big issue facing IWC delegates.

It came into effect in 1986 after research showed that whale stocks worldwide were in serious decline, as a result of unregulated catches for meat and oil.

Japan abides by the moratorium on commercial whaling, but catches around 800 of the mammals each year for a programme of "scientific research", as it is allowed to under the international whaling convention.

Japanese ODA [Overseas Development Aid] is decided by the government by consultation with the ruling party, and that doesn't include anything about a pro- or anti-whaling stance
Yoshimasa Hayashi, a member of Japan's upper house
The meat from those whales ends up in the stomachs of Japanese people; and critics say the scientific programme is just commercial whaling in disguise.

Iceland runs a similar, much smaller scheme, whereas Norway objected to the moratorium when it came into place, and catches several hundred whales each year.

The moratorium was seen as a stop-gap measure when it came into place, and since 1990 discussions have been going on about a replacement, the Revised Management Scheme (RMS), which would allow some degree of commercial hunting on a sustainable basis.

A version of the RMS will be proposed at this year's meeting; but Japan is expected to reject several of its components, such as what it regards as an over-zealous inspection regime, and present its own version instead.

Changes afoot?

Overturning the moratorium and adopting the RMS would require a three-quarters majority, and Japan is extremely unlikely to command that level of support.

But a simple majority would permit significant changes to the way the IWC works, and, therefore, to whaling regulations.

"Japan has indicated that it will delete from the agenda the issue of small cetaceans - such as dolphins and porpoises - and in fact the IWC is a very important source of advice on these animals," said Mark Simmonds.

Harpoon, BBC
Japan, Norway and Iceland have killed more than 25,000 whales since the IWC moratorium took effect in 1986
Most whales are killed with harpoons designed to explode inside them, though small traditional coastal communities use other methods
Whalers say unconsciousness or death is near instantaneous; opponents say some whales can take over an hour to die
Currently these creatures are not regulated by the IWC, but its scientists study them - which Japan says is outside the commission's remit.

"They can issue resolutions in favour of things which hitherto the commission would not have been in favour of; for example, a majority could congratulate Japan on its so-called scientific research programme," added Dr Simmonds.

Japan has also said it will delete agenda items relating to welfare - such as killing methods - whale-watching, and the creation of new sanctuaries.

It also plans to introduce secret ballots, and could theoretically force non-governmental conservation groups out of the meetings.

Many of those conservation groups believe the situation for whales and related species is more serious now that at any time before the moratorium was imposed.

The IWC's four new members will not be allowed to vote unless they have paid their subscriptions; conservation groups are hoping that Cameroon, Gambia and Nauru and Togo have left their cheque books at home, and bought cetaceans a year's grace.


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