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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 March 2008, 01:59 GMT
Whaling body seeks path to peace
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Japanese whaling vessel. Image: AP
Japan's whaling in the name of science is a top issue
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is due to open a meeting in London which aims to find common ground between pro- and anti-whaling nations.

Some anti-whaling countries are keen to explore compromise with Japan, though others remain implacably opposed to any resumption of commercial hunting.

Japan says it may leave the IWC unless it becomes a more effective forum.

The fractured commission will hear from experts who have steered other bodies through difficult negotiations.

Among them are Raul Estrada Oyuela, chair of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol talks, and Alvaro de Soto, who headed discussions that ended the El Salvador civil war in 1991 and has also worked on the Middle East and Cyprus.

If people don't want a way forward, then I don't see much future for the management and conservation of whales
William Hogarth, IWC chairman
IWC chairman William Hogarth hopes their experiences may show whaling delegates ways in which opposing factions can work together effectively.

"We're trying to find a way forward, to get past some of the real controversies we have, and try and work together," he told BBC News.

Japan's deputy whaling commissioner, Joji Morishita, agreed that the IWC needed to function more effectively.

"Even if people disagree with each other, they can still come together and talk calmly and reasonably about the issues that concern them," he said.

"It happens in other international organisations, but it has been lacking in the IWC in recent years."

Opposing camps

The original purpose of the IWC, as enshrined in the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), was to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry".

Yangtze river dolphin (Image: Stephen Leatherwood)
The IWC has no remit to conserve dolphins, a flaw in some eyes
This form of words expresses fairly accurately what Japan and its allies want from the IWC today - a whaling industry that is regulated, and where quotas are small enough to ensure stocks are sustainable.

But many countries, among them the UK, Australia, Brazil and Argentina, believe the world should not have a whaling industry at all.

They are particularly angered by Japan's use of an ICRW clause permitting hunting for scientific purposes, especially because most of the whales caught are in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

Some also believe that scientific understanding of whales is not advanced enough to guarantee than any level of hunting would be sustainable, and believe the 1986 moratorium on commercial hunting should continue indefinitely.

The annual IWC meetings now bring sharp clashes between the two philosophies, with neither side able to gain the three-quarters majority needed to vote through fundamental changes.

Some on the anti-whaling side believe the process is moribund, and that the stalemate acts against the interests of whale conservation.

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
More than 2,000 whales are hunted each year and the numbers are increasing, which some contend makes a mockery of the moratorium.

Some of the officials and politicians involved also believe whaling should be put to bed so they can concentrate on pressing environmental issues such as climate change and the global decline in biodiversity.

These countries may be prepared to countenance backing a limited resumption of commercial hunting, provided a number of conditions are approved, probably including:

  • a ban or radical reform of scientific whaling
  • international monitoring
  • DNA analysis to prevent illegally caught meat entering the market
  • a precautionary approach to quotas
  • observation of sanctuaries

Peace process

Officially, these issues are not on the table at the London meeting, which is supposed to be about how the IWC works rather than its substantive disagreements.

But in reality they underpin everything.

As one official asked me: "What is the point of talking about process when we disagree so fundamentally on points of principle?"

There is also the issue of how any avowedly anti-whaling government could sell a deal with Japan to its public.

If Japan does not see some progress towards a limited lifting of the moratorium, it has indicated it is likely to leave the IWC and set up an alternative whaling organisation with an overtly pro-sustainable use mandate.

Jun Hoshikawa of Greenpeace and Joji Morishita of Japan's Fisheries Agency Image: IISD/END

"We do want to see some signs of movement towards the original purpose of the whaling convention, which is a resource management and conservation treaty," said Mr Morishita.

"If we do not see any signs of movement, then other options begin to look more attractive, and we will look at them with more interest."

A break-up of the IWC is viewed with alarm by many in the anti-whaling bloc, as it would effectively remove most conservation safeguards.

But there is a broad spectrum of opinion in the camp about how to go forward.

While some favour compromise, others, backed by most conservation groups, believe ultimate victory is attainable - that a combination of awareness-raising in Japan combined with diplomatic pressure will eventually persuade Tokyo to abandon whaling unilaterally.

Over the course of this week and this year, events will largely be dictated by whether the fundamentalists or the moderates within the anti-whaling bloc eventually hold sway.

"If people don't want a way forward, then I don't see much future for the IWC or for the future of the management and conservation of whales," observed Dr Hogarth.

A whale being cut up for meat

Japan escalates whaling argument
04 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan seeks new allies on whaling
03 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Small signs of a whaling compromise
27 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature
Diary: Jonah and the whale-chasers
28 Jan 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Japanese premier defends whaling
24 Jan 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Whaling fights: Everyone's a winner
01 Jun 07 |  Science/Nature
Under the skin of whaling science
25 May 07 |  Science/Nature


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