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Last Updated: Friday, 1 June 2007, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Whaling fights: Everyone's a winner
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, Anchorage, Alaska

Humpback whale (Getty Images)
The conference failed to make the anticipated splash delegates hoped
Hardly a single whale has been saved and hardly a single whaler's lot has been eased.

That, unfortunately, has to be the conclusion as yet another meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) draws to its weary close beneath the sullen skies of Anchorage.

There has been rhetoric, there has been anger - some genuine, some synthesized for the moment - there have been resolutions passed and resolutions blocked.

But no real progress, certainly no meeting of minds. And some observers are now questioning whether either side really wants it.

"The IWC is absolutely not working," says Charlotte Epstein from the University of Sydney, author of a forthcoming book on the history and politics of whaling.

"It's amazing that people continue to go there every year, because what you have is two voices that are talking past one another. You have the whalers and the anti-whalers; nothing gets done, nothing changes, there's no moving forward."

Agreeing to disagree

At first sight, this is perplexing, because both the pro- and anti-whaling camps say they want change, albeit in opposite directions; and Japan came to this meeting preaching conciliation.

"In the long history of IWC, it's always fighting each other, and confrontational, and just talking to the press rather than talking to each other," Japan's alternate (deputy) whaling commissioner Joji Morishita told me just before the meeting started.

Importance of moratorium confirmed
Science not ready to consider lifting moratorium
Japan's scientific whaling condemned
Japan's coastal whaling bid withdrawn
South Atlantic whale sanctuary bid defeated
Dangerous activities in Southern Ocean condemned
Importance of whale-watching recognised
Slight increases in Greenland subsistence whaling
Subsistence quotas maintained for four coastal communities

"And many of us, including those even on the other side - the anti-whaling countries - are thinking that we are doing nothing, wasting time and making no progress."

Late last year, Japan hosted a meeting on "normalisation" to which all IWC governments were invited. "Normalisation" partly means returning the commission to its original purpose of regulating the whaling industry, and partly just making it functional.

Most countries in the anti-whaling camp stayed away.

Here, they stayed away from the possibility of a compromise which Japan floated on day one.

It pledged to reconsider its controversial plan to include humpbacks in its Antarctic hunt, conducted under rules permitting whaling for scientific research, if opponents would consider its plan to allow four coastal communities a small commercial catch.

Urged on by environmental NGOs, anti-whaling countries dismissed it out of hand, saying that Japan must unilaterally abandon the humpbacks first. There could be no deal. All possibility of conciliation and co-operation evaporated.

The NGOs and their governments had reasons to be suspicious of the Japanese bid, which, as it stood, amounted to a breach of the moratorium because whales would be hunted overtly for commerce.

People on both sides of the debate talk about their views

Nevertheless, there seemed room for discussion. So why the reluctance to engage, to seek a mutually acceptable way forward?

"There's that relationship between NGOs and governments that is quite functional from both of their perspectives," observes Dr Epstein.

"Governments look quite green because they're listening to NGOs; NGOs get listened to in an international system of states where there isn't much room normally for them. So there isn't much incentive to listen to anything else."

In this thesis, the NGOs dictate what governments need to say to look green, the governments say it, and NGOs duly say nice things about them. Reporters lap it all up, even help foment it, because they know what story their readers are expecting; it is all utterly predictable, and nobody has an incentive to step out of line.

Everyone's a winner; except, of course, the whales.

Becoming heroes

While Japan was hosting its normalisation summit, a select group of conservation organisations and academics came together for a meeting in New York organised by the Pew Charitable Trusts, also to seek ideas for taking management of whales and whaling forward.

Japanese whaling delegation (Getty Images)
Japan's concilatory offer was rejected by anti-whaling nations

Among the speakers was Atsushi Ishii, a political scientist from Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, who opposes high seas whaling.

He believes the current argumentative status quo also suits the body responsible for managing Japan's whaling, the Fisheries Agency.

"Japan is happy to continue scientific whaling; but they say scientific whaling is needed because they want to overturn the moratorium, so they need the moratorium to continue scientific whaling," he says.

"Anti-whaling activities are only fuelling support for the Fisheries Agency, and fuelling support for scientific whaling.

"And scientific whaling is the last thing the anti-whaling activists want; so I would suggest that they stop such activities and wait for the decline in support for scientific whaling among the Japanese people."

Dyke bursting

If Atsushi Ishii and Charlotte Epstein are right, the outlook is indeed bleak.

But there were signs here in Anchorage that things have gone too far for a number of the more constructive governments.

Delegates agreed that talks about the future should begin; before the next annual meeting in Chile, there will be a special gathering to discuss ways forward.

"This meeting is perhaps the last chance to put a finger in the dyke and stop the IWC breaking apart," says Remi Parmentier, a consultant to the Pew Trusts, who helped convene the New York gathering.

"Otherwise we may be looking at the ashes of the IWC."

Dissolution of the IWC, or even a handful of important countries leaving, would potentially return us to the dark ages of the 1930s when whaling was essentially unregulated.

Talks within the IWC might not be enough. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand's whaling commissioner, former Prime Minister and chair of the Pew meeting, believes there are options outside.

Blue whale graphic (BBC)

"You could set up a World Commission to examine the situation in relation to whales," he says, "or you could try and put the issue into the UN and see if you could get some interest that way.

"It's interesting that the normalisation meeting itself in Tokyo said 'look, we think it might have to go outside the IWC' - if you get it to the ministerial level, it would change."

Not everyone is convinced. In fact a number of NGOs were deeply offended by the Pew initiative, which they regarded as opening a door to the continuation of whaling when they believe a complete and total ban - except, perhaps, for subsistence hunting - is the only goal worth fighting for.

But NGOs have been saying this since the original Save the Whale campaign began back in the flower power era. That ushered in the moratorium; but even so, catches by Norway and Japan have risen steadily over the last decade, and about 2,500 whales will die under the harpoon before the IWC convenes again next year.

Some societies are just not convinced that a total and irrevocable halt is necessary or desirable, and the IWC rules cannot stop them hunting by force; acknowledging that and dealing with it may be the price campaigners have to pay, in the real world, for an oversight system that works.

"The NGOs were absolutely vital in getting us to pay attention to the plight of the whale," says Charlotte Epstein.

"The point is that now we may need to move on."

You can hear more on the issue of whaling on the BBC World Service's One Planet programme website

Whales being caught by hunters


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