By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Listening to some of the delegates talk, it was hard to understand how and why whaling has become the hotly disputed issue it undoubtedly is.
Whaling may be "trivial", but arouses powerful emotions
"Whaling is a trivial issue," said one.
"The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has been meeting every year for 25 years and you've made no progress?" wondered another, clearly with little first-hand experience of the dysfunctional annual IWC summits.
As we listened, we looked at the senior Japanese fisheries officials sitting next to representatives of environmental groups and wondered; perhaps something is possible here.
The incentives for both sides to sort out the impasse appear obvious.
Under a global moratorium on hunting, more than 2,000 whales are hunted each year; hardly a triumph for conservation, never mind logic.
Meanwhile, Japanese, Norwegian and Icelandic whalers find themselves excoriated for doing something that is quite legal under international law; hardly an ideal situation for them either.
Then we listened to the news coming in from the Antarctic of the annual stand-off between Greenpeace and Japan's scientific whaling fleet, and wondered whether we were cocooned in some kind of alternative reality, and whether any meeting of minds was possible.
The scene was a seminar in Tokyo organised recently by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a US-based think-tank.
Desperate to avoid the name-calling and personal abuse that bedevils IWC meetings, Pew was highly selective in its invitations.
Conservation groups put their heads together with pro-whalers
Assembled in the hall were delegates from pro- and anti-whaling governments, environmental groups, Japanese MPs, and - most usefully - people who had successfully steered other international negotiations through stormy waters, and could cut through the accumulated layers of historical mistrust and vitriol.
The hall held hardly any journalists, with their thirst for daily blood and hyperbole; and the meeting progressed under the Chatham House rule where the identity of speakers cannot be revealed outside the chamber without their permission, allowing a freedom to speak constructively which seems impossible at the IWC summits.
Pew believes compromise is desirable and possible. Yet a previous symposium it organised in New York had produced, among other intriguing and provocative ideas, the notion that the current stalemate actually suits everybody rather well.
It allows Japan's Fisheries Agency, for example, to posture as a defender of Japanese interests every time that Greenpeace or the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society obstructs the Antarctic hunt.
On the other side, the thesis holds that a mutually beneficial symbiosis has evolved between anti-whaling politicians who regularly and colourfully condemn the "slaughter", environmental NGOs which accordingly shower those politicians in green praise (perhaps helping in return to facilitate their own involvement with national delegations), and western journalists who write the easy stories their publics appear to want, again with the word "slaughter" writ large.
THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat
So could the second Pew gathering find a way through? Would there be signs that we might ever see a day when countries such as Australia, Brazil or the UK could approve a small measure of heavily-regulated Japanese commercial hunting, for example, perhaps in exchange for a reform of scientific whaling?
Having removed humpbacks from this season's Antarctic hunt, might Japanese delegates indicate a willingness to consider downscaling further, perhaps removing the endangered fin whale as well?
Could any of the "outsiders" show the IWC the route to a compromise that has so far proven elusive?
Juan Mayr chaired the UN talks that led eventually to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosecurity - essentially, a rulebook for the international movement of genetically modified organisms.
He gave delegates a fascinating picture of the human side of the negotiations. At one stage, he had smartly-suited delegates holding hands, he told us; at another, he used coloured balls and teddy-bears to break the ice, creating a personal connection through which opposing sides could construct a genuine dialogue.
Partly as a result of these innovations, an exhausting series of negotiations on an issue that once appeared irrevocably deadlocked concluded with a treaty acceptable to most. Could such ideas help in the IWC?
Juan Mayr offered some tantalising tips to IWC negotiators
Other speakers criticised the IWC and the whaling convention (IRCW) that it administers as relics of a bygone age: "a geriatric fisheries treaty" was one unflattering description of the 1946 agreement.
More recent international environmental treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species defer to the ICRW; yet it lacks the ability to regulate issues that threaten to bring some whales to extinction, such as bycatch, the accidental (or "accidental on purpose") snaring of whales in fishing nets.
The convention allows countries that do not like certain resolutions simply to opt out of them. It lacks any way of resolving disputes.
But does the main fault lie with the convention itself, or with the way the warring factions interpret it?
While it clearly allows Japan to decide how many whales to include in its scientific hunt, did the treaty's architects intend annual scientific catches of anything like 1,000 animals? Does Japan's hunting make a mockery of the clause?
The convention's core aim is to manage whaling sustainably; so when stocks of some species are reasonably robust, does the anti-whaling bloc break its spirit by maintaining the blanket global moratorium?
While both sides might like the idea of re-writing the convention, one suspects they may have different re-writes in mind.
As one of the Tokyo delegates said, compromise is only possible if "both sides give up the hope of absolute victory".
Some appeared to be willing to do so in return for the promise of an internationally-regulated, sustainable hunt, perhaps limited to national territorial waters, that would progress each year in what one delegate suggested should be a "boring" way, just as most fisheries do, without provoking daily headlines and international outrage.
There were hints from Japanese officials that a further downsizing of the Antarctic hunt might, perhaps, be offered one day.
Japan sees no conflict between watching and eating cetaceans
Delegates from anti-whaling governments were a little less forthcoming about what they might offer in return, though seeming to realise they would, eventually, have to offer something.
Some, on the other hand, clearly viewed any notion of "compromise" with suspicion. One called the 1986 moratorium "the boldest step taken in environmental conservation during the 20th Century"; and several said the current situation, though not ideal, was the least worst option available.
Another observed that the moratorium had been initiated by the global community at the pioneering Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972; and it would be inappropriate to have the moratorium lifted by a body which includes a minority of the world's governments.
The Norwegian hunt, which rivals Japan's in the number of whales taken though not in the variety of species, was hardly discussed; but it would become a real issue if compromise talks started making progress.
And what of other countries that might want to resume whaling? Where might they fit in a new international treaty?
More love than hate
Another burning question is whether there is really enough international political will to sort the IWC out.
Japan has wrangled bitterly with Australia in recent months over whaling; but on just about every other issue the two countries are as close as Brad and Angelina, and Australian trade sanctions are about as likely as a rematch with Jennifer.
One option is that the IWC will reform itself. An initiative by the US chairman, William Hogarth, will see commissioners gather next week in London for a three-day session aimed at restoring some semblance of order and functionality to the organisation.
Japan appears to welcome Mr Hogarth's ambition. His discussions with Japanese officials were largely responsible for Tokyo's decision to remove humpbacks from the Antarctic hunt - a scene-setting goodwill gesture.
But Japan is expecting more than a reform of tone. It wants to see some sign of progress towards the eventual approval of sustainable commercial whaling.
If it does not get that, it is likely to explore further the option of leaving the IWC and setting up a separate organisation of like-minded countries.
The Pew symposium suggested that some members of the anti-whaling bloc might not have too many problems with that, providing an extensive checklist of safeguards is introduced, possibly including elements such as
- limiting the species hunted
- deciding catch sizes internationally
- insisting on the observation of whale sanctuaries
- bringing scientific whaling under international oversight
If Japan could accept all of that - and it might - then the final outcome probably hinges on whether the hawks or the doves inside the anti-whaling bloc eventually hold sway.
Ending the whaling standoff will not be as easy as some in Tokyo suggested; for many people, it is anything but a trivial issue, more emotive than climate change, and a more potent indicator of the human attitude to nature than the global loss of biodiversity.
But an end does now appear possible. A sustained period of constructive discussions will be needed, and perhaps some of Juan Mayr's ice-breaking tricks; but doors are ajar, and it is up to players on various sides of the issue to decide how badly they want to walk through.