Page last updated at 23:28 GMT, Monday, 23 June 2008 00:28 UK

Anger at calm in whaling waters

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, Santiago

Whale protest from the air. Image: AFP/Getty
Campaigners formed themselves into a shape celebrating whales

The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has opened in Santiago without the usual war of words between pro- and anti-whaling nations.

Some campaigners in Chile's capital complain dissent is being suppressed.

But Japan says anti-whaling countries will be able to pursue conservation goals more effectively if they accept that whaling can be sustainable.

Meanwhile, Chile's President Michelle Bachelet signed a bill aiming to set up a whale sanctuary in national waters.

Accompanied by ministers from several other countries, including the UK's Lord Rooker, Ms Bachelet signed the largely symbolic bill at an old whaling station on the Chilean coast.

IWC member countries should pull themselves together and end commercial whaling once and for all
Patrick Ramage, Ifaw

As she did so, her Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley was opening the IWC plenary with a request for the organisation to sort itself out.

"The IWC was at some point a leading-edge instrument designed to stop the lack of regulation in whaling," he said.

Since its establishment 60 years ago, the entire context of whaling and whale conservation had changed, and now, suggested Mr Foxley, delegates had to recognise the need to catch up.

"It is necessary for parties to seek solutions that are acceptable to all and can meet the expectations of the international community, and that is not an easy process."

Long lunches

On the first day of five, the signs were that delegations were sticking to their pledges to avoid confrontation and look for ways of working together.

Japan and Argentina - speaking for the pro- and anti-whaling blocs respectively - vowed to build consensus wherever possible and to avoid tabling motions that might result in a divisive vote.

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

IWC chairman William Hogarth told reporters he would like the meeting to progress without any votes at all, if possible.

Lunch hours have been lengthened, leaving less time for disagreements to break out, and parts of the normally open week have been set aside for private commissioners' meetings.

Mr Hogarth's aim is to build bridges here, then to use the next year to construct a compromise package of reforms on which all parties might agree.

This might well involve a limited resumption of commercial whaling, which some environment groups view as anathema, and they fear the consensus-building process will stifle dissent and prevent their fundamental message being heard.

"The IWC agreed to end commercial whaling in 1986," said Patrick Ramage, director of the global whale programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).

"This is not the time to compromise that decision. IWC member countries should pull themselves together and end commercial whaling once and for all."

Protesters gathered outside the conference hotel to send a similar message - a demand to end whaling. Police said 15 people were detained.

Right whale. Image: BBC

But Joji Morishita, Japan's deputy whaling commissioner, said anti-whaling countries - and by extension, anti-whaling activists - could advance their conservation agenda by accepting that whales could be hunted sustainably.

"If that is accepted, it's much easier for our delegation to be involved in the so-called conservation agenda," he told BBC News.

"Those should be hand-in-hand, but in the past it was either one or the other, black and white. There should be a good combination between the so-called conservation agenda and sustainable utilisation."

Mr Morishita said he was encouraged by the conciliatory mood so far, but warned that bumpier roads might lie ahead as substantive issues arose.

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