By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Whales and other marine mammals are traditional foods in Greenland
Greenland is attempting to remove its whale hunt from the jurisdiction of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), BBC News has learned.
Its whalers are angry that the IWC has twice declined to permit the addition of humpback whales to its annual quota.
The move could make Greenland the only state outside the IWC to systematically hunt the "great whales".
The news comes on the eve of a Florida meeting aimed at finding compromise within the fractured IWC.
The meeting is the latest stage in a "peace process" which began more than a year ago.
But documents sent in by governments' delegations - seen by BBC News - suggest fundamental divisions remain.
Greenland's Inuit communities catch minke, fin and bowhead whales under regulations permitting hunting where there is a "nutritional and cultural need".
At the 2007 and 2008 IWC meetings, Greenland - represented by Denmark, its former colonial ruler - requested adding an annual quota of 10 humpback whales.
The requests were turned down owing to concerns that Greenland had not demonstrated a real need for the meat, and that its existing hunting was too commercial in character.
Now, a letter has gone from the fisheries ministry of the territory's home-rule administration, based in Nuuk, to Denmark's foreign ministry, asking that Greenland withdraw from the IWC.
It is not clear whether Greenland is asking for Denmark to leave the organisation, or to stop representing it, or to re-draw the areas of responsibility of the Copenhagen and Nuuk administrations to make whaling a completely home-rule issue.
Danish officials declined to elaborate, and Greenlandic fisheries officials did not respond to requests for clarification.
The issue is expected to take several months to resolve.
A withdrawal by Greenland would have serious implications, because outside the IWC, its whaling would be able to expand without international oversight.
Canadian Inuit revived a small bowhead hunt this year, but all other hunting for the "great whales" is mounted by IWC members.
But there is resentment in several Arctic countries over what is seen as the imposition of "western cultural values" on communities that take most of their food from the sea.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen's government represents Greenlanders in the IWC
Some ask the question, too, of why whaling is regulated globally when fisheries are managed through regional bodies.
The establishment of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (Nammco) in 1992 by Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands is an indication that some northern countries are looking for a different way to manage what they regard as their marine resources.
In its annual meeting earlier this month, Nammco concluded that Greenlanders should have an annual quota of no more than 10 humpbacks.
For the moment, Greenland is adhering to the IWC ruling rather than Nammco's recommendation; but given its latest move, that cannot be guaranteed to endure.
The establishment of a similar body to Nammco for the North Pacific is one of the options mooted by Japanese officials if the IWC becomes, in their view, beyond redemption.
Bridging the gap
With a view to healing the fissures within the IWC, chairman William Hogarth embarked more than a year ago on talks to explore whether some meeting of minds was possible.
Some anti-whaling activists decry the process because it could open the door to a limited lifting of the 1986 moratorium on commercial hunting.
But others believe it is the only viable way to reduce the annual global kill, which - if quotas are fulfilled - stands at more than 2,000.
A working group of 28 countries - not including the UK - will now meet in Florida, Dr Hogarth's home patch, to debate the issues that divide the organisation.
Thirteen countries have sent in statements of position, or comments, on the 33 issues that were agreed at the IWC plenary as needing attention.
Japan, as it has done regularly, says its traditional whaling communities should be permitted annual quotas.
THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
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
It envisages that such whaling would have a large element of international oversight, and that the number of whales caught would be deducted from the annual scientific hunt in coastal waters.
But it makes no mention of its annual Antarctic catch, the major bone of contention for anti-whaling nations.
Some anti-whaling countries indicate a willingness to compromise on fundamental issues.
Argentina, for example, says that "issues such as scientific whaling and (Japanese) small-scale coastal whaling should be re-examined in the light of a spirit of commitment and within the framework of a dialogue which will allow us to leave aside the winner/loser rationale which has lately prevailed at IWC".
But other anti-whaling countries, such as the Netherlands, are adamant that the commercial whaling moratorium should stay; that scientific hunting, which is presently in the gift of individual governments. must be brought under IWC control; and that no countries beyond Iceland, Japan and Norway should be permitted to start whaling.
South Korea, meanwhile, appears to suggest that it might ask for a quota if the moratorium were to be lifted, saying that some of its communities have a whaling culture dating back thousands of years, and that "the ever-lasting whaling moratorium is destined to give rise to continuing socio-economic hardships to the communities concerned."
And Norway has weighed in to the Greenlandic humpback issue, saying that the IWC's refusal of a quota showed "an appallingly patronising attitude vis-a-vis the needs of indigenous communities".
Dr Hogarth's aim is to have a package of measures agreed before the next IWC plenary in mid-2009. The indications are that much hard bargaining lies ahead if his wish is to be fulfilled.