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The whale papers

Richard Black | 10:45 UK time, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

After more than two years of somewhat abstract talks about a possible "compromise package " between pro- and anti-whaling nations, the first signs of what such a compromise might look like have just surfaced.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has been riven into two factions for decades, but there is a view, shared by some on each side, that chucking verbal harpoons at each other once a year is achieving nothing.

The current IWC chairman, Bill Hogarth, has been driving a process aimed at finding a compromise. And as the Washington Post reported on Sunday, the possible parameters of that compromise are now being put into writing.

Whalemeat advertised outside a restaurant in JapanOn my desk, I now have the text that went into a small meeting of delegates from six IWC member countries, plus a few other key players, held at the weekend in Hawaii.

The issues it concentrates on aren't surprising. The major component of deals proposed in previous years, and the major component of this one, is that Japan stops or reduces in a big way its annual operation in Antarctic waters - currently conducted under rules permitting hunting for scientific purposes - in exchange for which it gains the right to catch more whales near its coastline.

But there are many, many details to be worked out.

What reduction in Antarctic catch? How will it be monitored? How big and how commercial would the expansion in coastal whaling be?

What would ensure that the coastal catches did not become unsustainably large? What would prevent other countries - South Korea for now, possibly others later - duplicating the Japanese operation?

In terms of how it's answering those questions, the discussion paper doesn't generally make happy reading for people opposed to whaling.

There are two draft "compromise packages" proposed for scientific hunting. One envisages a progressive downscaling of the Antarctic minke whale catch over five years and an end to hunting fins and humpbacks; the other would set maximum catch limits for the five year period.

Nowhere is there mention of the anti-whalers' main goal - a complete end to scientific whaling, or at least its placement under international jurisdiction.

Japan currently aims to catch about 1,000 whales in the Antarctic each year. But the paper says that a decrease in the Antarctic haul would be "linked" to the coastal whaling quotas; that's not quantified, but implies that the more Japan cedes ground in the Southern Ocean, the more it will gain around its coasts - although the coastal catch would have to remain within limits set by the IWC's scientific committee.

There are more details in the document, on sanctuaries, bycatch and monitoring; but the scientific/coastal hunting trade is the most important.

Confrontation between activists and Japanese whaling vesselThe US could, presumably, live with all this - although there's been no word yet on whether the Obama regime would endorse this potentially unpopular initiative, stemming as it does from Mr Bush's time in office.

Some other governments are going to find it difficult, particularly those such as Australia and the UK that usually take a hard-nosed anti-whaling stance.

And what about the environment groups which campaign so eloquently on the issue?

I called up Patrick Ramage, who heads the whale programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) - one of the most vocal anti-whaling organisations - to see what he made of it.

"It's a bit of a surprise to understand that it's not 'if you exit scientific whaling then we'll give you something on your coast'," he said.

"The endgame appears to contemplate a legitimisation of scientific whaling and gives them coastal whaling.

"For any government serious about whale conservation, it's going to be difficult to sign up to a package that means the end of the moratorium - with whatever weasel words - and a legitimisation of both coastal and scientific hunting."

If what's included is causing such groups concern, what's not included may turn out to be even more problematical for them.

Norway hunts almost as many whales each year as Japan, though restricting itself to a single species, the minke. The document makes but one brief mention of this annual haul, and no mention at all of Iceland's.

These two countries are keen to export meat to Japan, which is one reason why anti-whaling groups have chased a trade ban for so long. But trade, it appears, is not on the table.

A technical point - but a highly important one for the future - concerns what category of whaling the new proposed Japanese programme would fall into.

Currently, the IWC recognises three categories - commercial, subsistence and scientific.

The new coastal whaling can't be commercial, because the 1982 commercial moratorium will stay in place, according to the document.

whale boatIt doesn't appear to fit into the subsistence or scientific categories either - yet the text also says it "would not be considered to constitute a new form of whaling" - so what is it, what are the parameters, and what's to prevent any other country deciding they would like a slice of it too?

A source close to the negotiations tells me there would be restrictions on how the meat can be distributed but it wouldn't be considered to be something new. So what should we call it - commercial-lite? Subsistence-commercial?

The same source tells me that other countries would be prevented from following suit by simple politics. Voting the package through will require a three-quarters majority of IWC members - although Dr Hogarth will be doing everything he can to have consensus - and the same three-quarters majority could easily block bids by other countries to follow in Japan's shoes.

In a nutshell, then, what we have is a political package. It aims to deliver certain things that each camp might demand; but as it now stands, it would not enshrine these ingredients in the international whaling convention in a way that fundamentally changes the way the industry is regulated.

In terms of what's on paper, it appears to give more to Japan (and, by omission, the other whaling nations) than it does to the anti-whaling bloc.

So far, it only works for the anti-whalers if they believe Japan will follow through on the spirit of the compromise as well as the letter, and will agree to further restrictions in the years to come.

My sense is that some of the anti-whaling delegates involved in the talks do believe that. But it will come harder to many outside.

Some who oppose whaling in principle may still argue that from these beginnings a final text can be wrought that satisfies them more than the current situation.

But you can get a foretaste of the opprobrium that anti-whaling countries will get if they follow this process through from the angles that some of their news organisations are now putting on the story - "Outrage at plan for Japan to kill whales in North Pacific" (ABC); "Secret Japan deal to trade whale kills" (The Age); "Proposal could see Japan hunt more whales" (Radio New Zealand).

The very least they will need to appease their electorates, newspapers and activists is a deal that reduces Japan's total whale kill markedly on a long-term basis - and a signed piece of paper demonstrating that.

So far, they don't have it.

My bet is that anti-whaling countries are going to demand a lot more details, safeguards and concessions than they have at present when commissioners of IWC countries next meet in Rome in March.

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