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Whales swim backwards

Richard Black | 09:10 UK time, Friday, 13 February 2009

As regular readers of this blog will know, 2009 could be as significant for whales and whaling as for climate change.

For half a year formally, and for much longer than that informally, governments in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have been talking about the possibility of finding a "compromise" package that could satisfy both the pro- and anti-hunting blocs - or, if not really satisfy them, then at least provide something they would prefer to the current situation.

I spent the beginning of the week in Lisbon at a seminar organised by the Pew Environment Group, the last in a series aimed at bringing important players together in an off-the-record setting where possible parameters of such a package could be thrashed around - which gave me the chance to gauge reaction to proposals which an IWC small working group released a couple of weeks ago.

They're basic and broad-brush, but the central short-term element of the possible deal they suggest is that Japan scales down its Antarctic hunt - conducted under rules permitting whaling for "scientific research" - and ramps up catches around its coasts.

Confrontation in the Southern OceanThe reception this idea received in the big world was generally hostile. Anti-whaling governments said there should be an immediate end to Japan's Antarctic hunt without any commercial or quasi-commercial coastal quotas; while in Tokyo, fisheries minister Shigeru Ishiba said he would accept nothing that compromised Japan's "research whaling".

Anti-whaling organisations, whose attitude is crucial to the prospects of the peace talks, were generally scathing of the "package", but not in terms so scarlet as to indicate total, irrevocable opposition.

But they're not falling over themselves to make it work either, in public or in private - and given that it could bring a substantial reduction in the number of whales Japan kills each year, that is significant.

A key question, then, is whether the public stances of the various parties leave enough wiggle room to concoct a workable compromise.

My instinct, following the Pew meeting, is that a form of words could be found that both sides could eventually live with.

But despite that, I would now bet against a deal materialising.

Why? Well, for one thing, it is not entirely clear what Japan's priorities are.

For many years it has argued [pdf link] that four of its traditional whaling communities need an annual take of minke whales, for nutritional, cultural and economic reasons.

But there is also a fundamental philosophy alive in Japan and the other whaling countries that sees whales as wild creatures to be hunted like any others and whalemeat as a commodity to be traded like any other.

Politically, gaining the coastal quotas would almost certainly mean sacrificing this principle, because I don't believe the anti-whaling side will accept a deal that leaves Japan's biggest single hunt (the Antarctic) open for more than a few years or that allows international trade at all; so there is a choice to be made.

A second reason is that as it stands, the package leaves out many issues important to the anti-whaling side. They want trade banned, they want bycatch [pdf link] (accidental, and sometimes not-so-accidental, entrapment in fishing nets) dealt with, and they don't want Norway's annual hunt (with quotas almost as big as Japan's) to be ignored.

A third, and somewhat cynical, reason is that some on both sides of the whaling issue have much to gain from maintaining the status quo. One voice in the anti-whaling camp tells me that some campaigning organisations raise more money through running adverts lambasting the Japanese "slaughter" than through anything else they do; while on Japan's side, the Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs the scientific whaling programmes, would presumably diminish in prestige and budget if those programmes were to shrink markedly.

A fourth reason is simply inertia. Everyone involved has lived with the current impasse for years. There is suspicion on both sides, many key details remain to be sorted out, time is short, and a single perception of betrayal or dirty dealing could be enough to make either side walk away.

But the clincher is that none of the small working group's members who I have asked directly are now optimistic about the process's success - a distinct change, in some cases, from their views just a few months ago.

Humpback whaleAnother factor, possibly significant, is that Japanese officials are involved with a plan [pdf link] to set up an alternative international treaty organisation if the IWC fails to "normalise" - ie to return to its original purpose of regulating commercial whaling.

Some anti-whaling groups regard this as just a negotiating tactic. But, I gather, the process has advanced to such a stage that an entire draft convention exists, including a requirement that any country signing up would have to leave the IWC.

It also includes wording to the effect that culling cetaceans could be employed as a method of increasing fisheries yield - an argument that has long been anathema to many fisheries scientists, and that is challenged once again by a paper in this week's Science journal.

Could such a treaty come to fruition, gain members, and effectively replace the IWC?

Certainly there would be legal challenges; certainly there would be political difficulties; and it's not certain that even the Japanese government would decide to jump ship into waters so bloody with confrontation that today's turbulent seas would look like miso soup by comparison.

For the anti-whaling nations, Japan's involvement with such a venture is a sign of bad faith. Japan counters that the real bad faith lies in the anti-whalers' failure to abide by the wording of the 1982 commercial whaling moratorium, which committed the IWC to review by 1990 the impacts of the moratorium on whale stocks and consider revising it.

Portugal will host this year's IWC meeting; and as one of the Portuguese delegates at the Pew symposium said, they will try to make the "package" process work, not least because "you don't want to invite someone to dinner and then see him die at your table".

Some delegates believe the death will come sooner - next month, in fact, when IWC commissioners meet privately in Rome to discuss the small working group's proposals.

The experts Pew assembled this week concluded that a high-level meeting of government ministers would be needed to break the deadlock. It's far from certain, though, that even that would succeed. It is, after all, government ministers who have been making the most strident comments in the last two weeks.

Is a deal salvageable? Probably, I think, it is, just; but if it is to happen, I believe anybody who really wants it is going to have to come up quickly with something significantly more bold and generous than we have seen so far.

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