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Whale deal falls: but who wins?

Richard Black | 19:16 UK time, Wednesday, 23 June 2010

From the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco:

It had always seemed unlikely that a bridge could be built across this particular stretch of troubled water and so it has transpired.

In the end, after two years of formal talks and almost 30 private sessions crammed into the opening two days here, governments proved unable or unwilling to leap across the divide between those that see whales as a natural living resource to be harvested sustainably and those that see them as special, intelligent creatures that should be completely protected from harpooning.

Whaling_boatThe main stumbling block was what happened to Japan's annual whaling programme in the Antarctic, which is conducted under regulations permitting the catching of whales for scientific research in what has been declared a whale sanctuary.

Those two features of the programme illustrate perfectly why it's the undisputed bete noire of the conservation movement and the primary target of anti-whaling governments.

Yet as things stand, they're powerless to stop it; Japan says the sanctuary itself has no scientific validity, and that scientific whaling is perfectly legal.

Many activists are very excited by Australia's forthcoming legal challenge in the International Court of Justice, but lawyers I've spoken to are not, believing it has little chance of success and will in any case take about seven years to follow through.

The inability to enforce their will is the main reason why anti-whaling governments came to the negotiating table.

Japan was prepared to curtail the hunt from its current annual maximum quota of 935 minke whales and 50 fins down to a few hundred minkes - perhaps 200 in 10 years' time - and to five fins, which many believed could easily be negotiated away.

But accepting that Japan could indulge in an annual Antarctic hunt of several hundred whales proved too much for anti-whaling governments to stomach. With Japan unwilling to go further, the deal was dead.

There were other points of contention as well, but that was the big one.

Children_and_whaleWhat no-one knows is where we go from here. People are talking about a "cooling-off period" while governments decide what to do - but, to all intents and purposes, the "peace process" appears fatally harpooned.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former New Zealand prime minister who has played a leading role in the diplomatic dance, will move on to other matters; Chilean IWC chairman Cristian Maquieira - another experienced diplomat - may not be permitted to remain in post, as his government frets about its image on the issue. The US is unlikely to remain as deeply in the game.

Without their leadership, there is no process.

Reactions from environmental activists have been mixed, and sometimes emotional. I was told of a heartfelt exchange between two former Greenpeace activists. One applauded the outcome. He thinks Australia will win its court case against Japan, and then impose trade sanctions that will force a stop to whaling.

The other counted the difference between the number of whales that Japan will now target each year in the Antarctic - a maximum of 935 minkes per year - and the number it might have been prepared to come down to in the event of compromise, probably around 300 per year averaged over the decade.

Fin_whaleOver the 10-year period, that's potentially more than 6,000 extra minke whales killed.

Originally, Japan intended to target 50 humpback whales per year as well. It suspended that element of the programme while the compromise talks demonstrated progress. It's not adding them back in yet, officials told me; but it's a strong possibility for the future.

Those are the conservation costs potentially borne through the death of this process.

Groups that opposed a deal, though, believe that other factors - declining demand, rising costs, international pressure, direct action - will bring an end to Japan's whaling well before those costs materialise. For them, the element of legitimising whaling that was implicit in the deal would have prolonged Japan's programme beyond its natural life.

And the principle of the moratorium remains intact: whaling is not endorsed by the global community, and other countries that might have contemplated starting, such as South Korea, do not have that point of principle on which to stand.

So is the collapse of this process a victory or a defeat for the conservation movement?

Here, you'll find people prepared to tell you both stories and draughts to the different visions of defeat and victory will doubtless be drunk long and loudly in the bars of Agadir.

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