Page last updated at 22:01 GMT, Monday, 13 October 2008 23:01 UK

Whale deal falls at last minute

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, Barcelona

A humpback whale jumps off Okinawa, Japan, March 2008
The argument that whales eat copious quantities of fish has been contentions

A unique consensus between environment groups and whaling nations at the World Conservation Congress was derailed by a last-minute Australian intervention.

Japan and Norway had agreed to back a motion saying there was not enough data to support the claim that culling whales could raise fisheries yields.

But Australia's late bid for stronger wording broke the consensus and left other anti-whaling countries fuming.

The "whales eat fish" argument is often cited as a reason to maintain hunting.

The conservation groups behind the consensus, the Pew Environment Group and WWF, believed it could help build bridges between Norway, Japan and Iceland and their opponents which could, in the end, lead to a diminution of the whaling industry.

"We had an excellent spirit of co-operation and consensus," said Sue Lieberman, head of WWF's global species programme.

"We felt that we had a resolution, but these are the ins and outs of negotiations."

Japanese officials who had participated in an intensive series of consensus-building discussions during the week - at which Australia was also represented - were furious at the last-ditch attempt to introduce stronger wording than had been agreed.

"Australian bad behaviour has put the spirit of co-operation in jeopardy," said Hideki Moronuki, a senior official with Japan's fisheries agency.

"Australia had participated in the [consensus-building] process, they were in the room all the time - this is back-handed."

Officials from other anti-whaling nations agreed, one calling the last-minute intervention "despicable".

The Australian delegation here declined to comment.

Management issue

Japanese scientists have regularly argued that whales may be competing with humans for fish, and countries that usually vote with Japan within the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have cited it as a reason for their support.

The St Kitts Declaration, a resolution passed at the 2006 IWC meeting which numbered Japan and Norway among its sponsors, said: "Scientific research has shown that whales consume huge quantities of fish, making the issue a matter of food security for coastal nations and requiring that the issue of management of whale stocks must be considered in a broader context of ecosystem management."

This was greatly contentious. Three years earlier, the IWC's scientific committee had concluded there was no way of providing reliable advice on the impacts of cetaceans on fisheries, though acknowledging that "consideration of ecosystem interactions between fish stocks and cetaceans is a potentially important research topic".

The wording of the consensus resolution agreed here asked delegations, which include most of the world's governments, to acknowledge that "there is inadequate scientific information to support an assertion that controlling great whale populations can increase fisheries yields".

Pew and WWF argued that having Japan and Norway put their names to this would make it impossible for them to use the "whales eat fish" argument in future.

The amendment tabled by Australia asked delegations instead to acknowledge "that the great whales play no significant role in the current crisis affecting global fisheries".

A number of nations, Japan among them, could not accept the wording or the manner of its introduction. Although it passed with a substantial majority, the anti-whaling bloc will not be able to say that Japan accepted it.

The motion also urged members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which runs the World Conservation Congress, to prioritise the conservation of fish, whales and the wider marine environment by addressing issues such as illegal fishing and excessively large fleets, and establishing marine protected areas.

It also encouraged the use of non-lethal research methods on the biology and behaviour of whales.

Engagement off?

The Pew group has been supporting moves over the last year and a half to seek ways of breaking the deadlock within the IWC, and appears to have established enough of a relationship with Japanese whaling officials to engender constructive dialogue.

"I hope that the constructive and unprecedented discussions that have taken place this week in Barcelona, with all sides working together to seek consensus, is a precursor of the signal that we have urged the government of Japan to give regarding its intentions," said Remi Parmentier, a senior policy advisor with Pew.

The latest stage in the IWC "peace process" was a week-long meeting in Florida held in September.

Sources indicate there was amicable dialogue, but little progress on the substantive issues such as Japan's desire to secure small whaling quotas for four coastal communities, and opposition to the scale of its current Antarctic hunt, conducted under regulations allowing whaling for scientific research.

Following the breaking of the consensus here, there must be doubts now about whether Japan and Norway will want to stay engaged, although officials from other anti-whaling nations and environment groups were at pains to emphasise the amendment had been a uniquely Australian affair.

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