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March 12, 2010

Battle Engaged for Whales at March IWC meeting

Humane Society International

Two competing proposals emerged from the March meeting of an International Whaling Commission (IWC) caucus tasked with developing a new compromise package for consideration at the IWC’s annual meeting in June.

To many governmental and non-governmental observers, including HSI representatives, the working group’s proposal looked more like a plan to re-introduce commercial whaling under a mutually acceptable regime than a fair and serious attempt at compromise. In contrast, an Australian counterproposal promises to lay the groundwork for an end to commercial and special permit (“scientific”) whaling via timelines and a regulatory process.

When the dust settled after the three-day meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, Australia had further strengthened its claim to enlightened leadership of the conservation-minded nations, while the United States continued to diverge from its historic pro-whale position in a determined but confused effort to defend the IWC package that Japan and other whaling nations helped to craft.

The meeting brought together members of a small IWC group charged with advancing the IWC’s focus on its future, a project Chairman Cristian Maquieira inherited from his predecessor William Hogarth. For some countries the meeting was the first occasion on which they have been able to discuss the deal, designed by 12 member nations of the 88-member IWC. Its contents were revealed to member governments only a week prior to the meeting, leaving little time for deliberation.

The IWC proposal

The package developed by the working group would suspend the 1986 commercial whaling moratorium for a period of 10 years. During this time Iceland, Japan and Norway would be given quotas to kill whales—even in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, one of just two IWC-designated sanctuaries in which all commercial whaling is currently prohibited.

In return for allowing these three whaling countries to kill whales for commercial purposes the package proposes to limit the number of whales each country kills per year. Yet it lacks the necessary safeguards to protect these animals, and puts the IWC at the mercy of the three nations that have done most to undermine the quarter-century-old moratorium, and collectively killed over 36,000 whales since it took effect. It leaves current loopholes intact while allowing commercial whaling and legitimizing special permit whaling for a period of 10 years.

Not surprisingly, South Korea quickly stepped into the breach opened up by the compromise, stating its intention to pursue its own commercial whaling once the deal is approved, a right it could assert under Article V of the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling.

The Australian proposal

Australia advanced an alternative compromise proposal that would see an end to unilateral scientific whaling and whaling in Antarctica, to be phased out over five years. All other commercial whaling around the world would be phased down and out over an unspecified reasonable period of time.

The Australian proposal would require that no new whaling be allowed for species or populations not currently hunted, and an immediate end to the hunting of whales in IWC-recognized whale sanctuaries or for species and populations that are vulnerable. A robust monitoring, compliance and enforcement regime would be applied during the phase out period. Finally, Australia seeks agreement on a process to address the clauses for scientific whaling, objections and reservations that have been used by the whaling countries to circumvent the global moratorium on commercial whaling.

The US delegation at St. Petersburg undercut the Australians by spending its time defending the IWC proposal and trying to marshal support for its adoption, disappointing given that it is unenforceable, nonbinding, non-precautionary, and legally problematic.

In early April, IWC member countries will submit their comments on the package to the IWC Secretariat, and another small-scale meeting will work behind closed doors to reconcile those submissions. The Secretariat will then post the deal in its entirety in late April, as a preface to full consideration and a vote at the June IWC meeting in Agadir, Morocco.

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