Page last updated at 04:34 GMT, Saturday, 28 June 2008 05:34 UK

Can compromise save the whale?

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, Santiago

A humpback whale swims in the Silver Bank whale sanctuary in the North Atlantic Ocean

So it's official - both sides want peace. Or do they? As the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting came to a close, not everyone was convinced by the rhetoric of reason and good faith.

Heard in the corridor: "We've been down this road before", "They're not serious", "It's just a ploy to eat up time".

IWC history is bloody with betrayal. It will take more than an agreement to link arms and waltz off into the sunset to convince seasoned observers on both sides that anything more than a crock of frustration and heartache lies at the end of the path.

Also heard in the corridor: "We have to try", "It's the last chance", "Anything would be better than this mess".

Difficult deal

The EU has a very clear mandate - we want to have the moratorium, or any better alternative that would stop whaling in due course, except for aboriginal whaling
Giuseppe Raaphorst, Netherlands' whaling commissioner

Even the keenest of those involved with the plan for pro- and anti-whaling countries to spend a year working out their differences and trying to agree some kind of compromise package acknowledge there is a great deal of ground to be covered.

"There's no doubt there are big gaps here between those who want to kill whales and those who want to conserve them," says New Zealand's whaling commissioner Sir Geoffrey Palmer, whose background in international law and diplomacy is one of the reasons why the peace deal is even on the agenda.

"What we've done is to start a process. It may lead to a position that is better than the one we're in, and that would be a wonderful thing."

Coming from a country where 92% of the population opposes whaling - according to the environment ministry - Sir Geoffrey's priority is to secure a deal that is in some definable way better for whales.

His government would be able to sell nothing less to its public, and the same goes for Australia, the UK, the US and most of the European and Latin American countries involved in the IWC

Thoughts and views on the IWC, whales and whaling

The biggest prize for these governments would be to secure an end to scientific whaling - not only to close Japan's current operations in the Antarctic, but also to prevent the provision ever being used again for large scale hunting.

Japan insists for now that it will not agree to give it up, although some observers believe this is a negotiating tactic.

From some standpoints, Japan would have little to lose and much to gain by ceding ground. The scientific whaling programme costs government money, and earns little but international opprobrium.

Anti-whaling countries would also be likely to insist on a ban in international trade in whale meat. This would go down badly with Norway and Iceland, where some in the industry see Japanese stomachs, rather than those of their compatriots, as the logical and profitable destination for their catch.

Circular argument

For all the talk of respect and a different way of approaching things - they're not going to compromise in any way
Laila Jusnes, High North Alliance

What about what the whalers would want? Almost certainly, a lifting - however partial and nuanced - of the commercial whaling moratorium, which was agreed back in 1982 in language that suggests a temporary measure.

Can the anti-whalers go that far?

"I'm afraid that for at least half if not a majority of the countries here present, that would be unacceptable out of principle, even if you would help the whales," says Giuseppe Raaphorst, the Netherlands' whaling commissioner, who has been one of the voices in the EU seeking an accommodation.

It may be an accurate summary of the situation.

If it is, that is not going to impress leaders of the pro-hunting bloc, already dismayed at this meeting by the decision not to allow Greenland's Inuit hunters to add humpback whales to their annual catch.

"I'm afraid that we're just walking around in circles," says Laila Jusnes of the High North Alliance, which represents whalers, sealers and fishermen in the Arctic.

Right whale. Image: BBC

"When it came down to anything of substance, like with the Greenland request, we saw that for all the talk of respect and a different way of approaching things, they didn't mean it - the EU blocked it with help from the Latin American countries and Australia and New Zealand - and that just showed us that they're not going to compromise in any way."

This version of the reasoning behind the refusal of Greenland's extra quota is, of course, starkly at odds with that given by countries voting against it.

And Giuseppe Raaphorst believes the EU is not duty bound to block any move that entails lifting the moratorium.

"The EU has a very clear mandate - we want to have the moratorium, or any better alternative that would stop whaling in due course, except for aboriginal whaling."

Seeking clarity

Where this will end up in a year's time, after all the various formal and informal meetings and dialogues and workshops and email exchanges have taken place, is anyone's guess.

Even IWC chairman William Hogarth, who has been driving the peace initiative, acknowledges that a year is a very short time in which to turn a snarling bear pit of suspicion into a modern, relevant environmental treaty organisation.

At times your head aches with the complexity.

So it was refreshing to see, in the lobby of the Santiago hotel which has hosted this year's meeting, an exhibition of startlingly huge photographs of whales - a humpback turning upside down, apparently frolicking; a mother and calf; a close-up view of a giant cetacean eye.

And then you remember - so that's why it matters.

Whale meet ends with peace agenda
27 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Greenland denied on whale catch
26 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
The 'value' of protecting whales
26 Jun 08 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Counting whales: A fluky business
26 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Whaling body agrees path to peace
24 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Africa fish fall blamed on Japan
24 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Time for peace in the whaling world?
19 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Greenland whale hunt 'commercial'
17 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Whalemeat traders 'defying ban'
02 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature

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