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June 25, 2010

IWC 2010: Final Dispatch

Deal dead, moratorium intact, future uncertain

Humane Society International

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    Making a point. Rebecca Regnery/HSI

  • Whales suffer when harpooned. Rebecca Regnery/HSI

  • Whaling is inhumane. Rebecca Regnery/HSI

by Bernard Unti

IWC 62 proved indeed to be the battle royal that most observers had expected, with the moratorium, IWC dysfunctionality, and Japan’s “scientific whaling” all left standing at its close. In the annual conflict over the fate of whales, the results were mixed, as they always are.

How the deal went down

With the longest last day in recent IWC history drawing to a close, the delegates stuck a fork in Item 3, the compromise proposal that had been the focus of so much energy. Normally, there might be reason to mourn the defeat of an international accord that sought to help whales, but on the merits, this one was not a close call. Most people agreed that a failure to reach consensus on the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary caused the breakdown of the compromise package that was shopped around before and during IWC 62. Not even the strong push by a few of the conservation-minded nations and several NGOs could neutralize the skepticism and ultimately, the opposition of other parties. And in the end, no one could really say whether Japan had ever been willing to give up a thing.

Nor could the well-meaning defenders of the package deny certain basic facts: A deal would have been hard to police, would have been based more on politics than on science, and would have opened up the option for countries eager to resume or begin whaling, such as Korea, to move forward with their plans. Also, Iceland, and its shadow government at IWC, the millionaire whale meat entrepreneur Kristjan Loftssen, were not going to agree to a ban on commercial trade.

Finally, there were a few nations, Australia the most prominent among them, that were firm in their conviction that no deal would be a lesser evil than a bad deal. Through his presence, Australia’s Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, provided much-needed spine to this bloc, and helped to avert the worst of outcomes.

The indigenous whaling issue

The IWC did reach agreement on one unresolved matter: the aboriginal sustenance whaling (ASW) proposal from Greenland. Denmark, representing Greenland, was granted the quota it had failed to obtain two years previously at IWC 60 in Santiago, having satisfied some of the concerns raised by EU nations at the conference. Under the agreement reached, Denmark/Greenland promised to reduce Greenland’s catch of fin whales from the North Atlantic stock from 16 to 10, for the years 2010, 2011, and 2012. Denmark and Greenland also agreed to decrease a take of humpbacks from 10 to nine.

Many European NGOs had hoped to forestall this controversial proposal. In the end, conservation countries supported it despite reservations that Greenland did not demonstrate adequate subsistence need for the increased number of whales, and provocative revelations about the meat from Greenland’s current kills ending up on the plates of tourists in high-end restaurants, making the Greenland hunt a commercial rather than a subsistence whaling exercise.

Meanwhile, the U.S. made a bold effort to lock in a quota for its indigenous whalers from Alaska’s North Slope in order to avoid “hostage-taking” in the years ahead, with more discussions on the future looming and the renewal of all IWC ASW quotas set for 2012. The U.S. pressed hard to get the issue aired on Thursday, and on Friday, when Edward S. Itta, Mayor of the North Slope Borough, spoke to the plenary. Finally, however, the U.S. recognized that the proposal would not gain the support of the EU and Latin American blocs, and Deputy Commissioner Doug DeMaster announced late on Day 5 that the U.S. would withdraw its proposal.

Norway rages over NGO speech

Late Thursday, Chairman Anthony Liverpool allowed a second group of NGO representatives to speak, and of these, the speakers from WWF-West Africa, Greenpeace Japan, and NOAH-Norway grabbed the most attention with their tough criticisms, respectively, of IWC practices, Japan’s whaling program, and the recent scandal surrounding a whale hunt filmed by animal advocates in Norway.

The fuss stemmed from the groups’ efforts to document a May 23, 2010 hunt by the whaling vessel Rowenta, which struck a minke whale with a harpoon, failing to kill the animal. The vessel apparently failed to secure the whale for at least a period of 22 minutes. The minke may have been struck and lost or, alternatively, been killed by a second harpoon shot more than two hours later, in either event raising significant welfare concerns.

Norway objected almost instantly, but saved its strongest reaction for Friday, paradoxically focusing the spotlight still more harshly on its own whaling. Usually, Japan draws the greatest share of scrutiny, public and private, during the run up to IWC meetings. Lars Walloe responded with a long defense of Norwegian whaling practices, and attempted to poke holes in the investigation, going so far as to suggest a falsification of the film.

In a dramatic if polite exchange outside the conference hall, Siri Martinsen, Director of NOAH (for dyrs rettigheter), went back and forth with Walloe about the Rowenta investigation, pressing Walloe to provide ship’s log and other data from this and other incidents. Norway removed its welfare inspectors from whaling ships in 2003, but its data up to that time showed that some 20 percent of the whales it kills do not die instantly.

Japanese gaming at the IWC, and what lies ahead

As a metaphor for IWC, the Japanese game of shogi can’t be beat, for in it, captured pieces are truly captured, and retained for use at a later time and place by the taker. That’s how the deployment of development packages, declared commitments to compromise and courtesy, proposals for coastal whaling, scientific whaling programs, aligned country delegations, greenwashing NGOs, fishery scientists, multi-lingual P.R. flacks, and assorted other players proceeds, year after year, as Japan manages its annual face à face over whaling with an increasingly indignant global community. Next year’s IWC meeting venue has not been chosen yet, but the entire cast of characters, refreshed, re-armed, and ready to fight, is expected to be there.

Bernard Unti, Ph.D, is senior policy adviser and special assistant to the CEO/President of The Humane Society of the United States, and a Humane Society International delegate to the IWC.

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