Page last updated at 04:47 GMT, Monday, 23 June 2008 05:47 UK

Peace pledges as whale meet opens

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, Santiago, Chile

Flensing a whale. Image: AFP
Deep divides remain on the morality of hunting, despite the sweeter mood

Countries on both sides of the whaling divide are pledging a new spirit of co-operation as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) convenes.

There is general agreement that the global body charged with conserving whales and regulating whaling does neither task very effectively.

A year-long diplomatic effort by the US has built bridges between the parties.

But there is still deep suspicion, and a fundamental divide over whether it is right to hunt whales at all.

It appears that Japan, the head of the pro-hunting bloc, and most of its traditional opponents sense they have something to gain from trying to find common ground.

The question is, do we accept the status quo and see more than 1,600 whales killed each year, or do we look and see is there a solution?
Dr Sue Lieberman, WWF

The hunting nations would gain legitimacy, while the prizes for the anti-whalers could include a smaller annual catch, the end of scientific whaling and greater regulation of the hunting that does take place.

If the spirit of harmony survives this week, another year of diplomacy is expected, aiming to agree a package of reforms by the next annual meeting.

"Every party I've talked to senses that the IWC cannot continue on the path it's on and I think that's the first thing, to recognise that you have problems," said William Hogarth, the US whaling commissioner who, as IWC chair, has been leading the diplomacy.

"There's no doubt that the only way to do this is to negotiate a package - everybody wins, nobody loses - but for the sake of the whales, we need to do this."

Compromise question

What concerns some countries and some groups in the anti-whaling camp is that the package would almost certainly have to include a partial lifting of the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, which to some is sacrosanct.

Harpoon. Image: BBC
Under the global moratorium on commercial whaling, hunting is conducted in three ways:
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

"Australia hasn't come to this whaling commission to compromise at all," Australian environment minister Peter Garrett told reporters.

"We are strongly of the view that we do not want to see the commercial exploitation of whale populations."

Some conservation groups feel the same way. But others believe that a deal might curb the annual whale catch which has risen steadily since the moratorium was established.

"The question is, do we accept the status quo and see more than 1,600 whales killed each year, or do we look and see if there is a solution?" said Sue Lieberman, director of the global species programme for WWF International.

"We don't like commercial whaling at all. But if there could be a package that reduced what's gong on right now, I think it would be wrong not at least to put it on the table and see what's on offer; but it has to be much better for whales than what we've got right now."

Warmer climes

Another reason for doing a deal on hunting, in some people's eyes, is that it would free the commission to look at other issues affecting whales.

The next whale to go extinct, for example, could be the North Atlantic right whale. Only about 300 remain; and although they were hunted in large numbers in previous centuries, the main threat to them now is being hit by ships.

Right whale. Image: BBC

Recent reports have also highlighted the potential impacts of climate change.

"When you have species with restricted habitats, such as river dolphins or the vaquita in the Gulf of California, as climate changes the animals have nowhere to go - they cannot migrate out of trouble," said Mark Simmonds, international director of science for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).

Many of the ocean-going whales, meanwhile, depend on sea ice for their food. The Arctic ice is retreating fast in summertime, and computer models suggest the Antarctic may see a reduction in decades to come.

"There is also growing evidence that we are seeing more disease events, and that those events that have large-scale population impacts are being modified by climate change," added Dr Simmonds.

Local needs

As the meeting opens on Monday at 1000 in Santiago (1400 GMT), Chilean president Michelle Bachelet will sign a bill seeking to establish a whale sanctuary in national waters.

The larger aim of the Latin American bloc is to create a sanctuary for the entire South Atlantic ocean.

Whalemeat packet

But that will be a contentious issue; and the choice before the Latin Americans is to push it and risk breaching the fragile peace, or to risk losing a certain amount of domestic face by not pushing it.

Also likely to prove controversial as the meeting progresses is the request for Greenlanders (who hunt under regulations permitting a subsistence catch) to be allowed an extra quota of humpback whales, which they do not currently hunt.

A report published last week showed that about 25% of the meat was sold through commercial companies to supermarkets. Conservation groups say that shows the indigenous population's "need" for whalemeat is open to question.

But the IWC's scientists are likely to conclude that the quota is sustainable, and in that case the Greenland request is likely to pass.

Time for peace in the whaling world?
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20 May 08 |  Science/Nature
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14 Apr 08 |  Asia-Pacific
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Tentative steps to whaling peace
08 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature

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