Whaling: A draft of cold comfort?
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has unveiled detailed proposals on how whaling could be regulated in a way that countries still engaged in the hunt and those opposed to it could both live with.
The essential dilemma is what it has been for decades: some societies view the whale as just another wild animal to be hunted, whereas for others it is a special emblem of a troubled environment, a sentient friend that should never feel the thud of a harpoon.
However, the often acrimonious and sometimes violent impasse has induced some people in both camps to explore a possible "compromise package" that both could live with in peace, if not in ecstasy.
Over the last few years I've regularly documented the "peace process" aimed at finding such a compromise; and the current proposals, prepared by a group of 12 countries including strongly pro Japan, strongly anti Australia and lukewarm US, constitute the latest and most detailed contribution.
If implemented, the draft would usher in a 10-year period where all hunting for the "great whales" would come "under the control of the IWC". That means the commission would set ceilings on quotas, mandate and monitor a programme of international observers on some vessels, require DNA sampling of meat from markets, and so on.
Much of the recommendations would be pretty much uncontested - there is no real disagreement, for example, over the use of observers, as there once was - and some of the overall objectives set for the IWC, such as the restoration of depleted stocks, are very much in what Americans might term the "Mom and apple pie" category.
But there are also profound difficulties - some of principle, others of politics - and early rumblings indicate they are potentially big enough to prevent IWC members from adopting this draft.
For anti-whaling countries and organisations, one of the lures of this draft deal is that they would have some say over what quotas should be set for Iceland, Japan and Norway, which currently set their own quotas and which have allowed themselves regular increases in recent years.
But as yet the report contains no numbers, not even suggestions, for what those quotas might be.
The draft's key criterion is that hunts should be sustainable. The IWC does have up its sleeve scientific ways of evaluating that - one of them is routinely deployed to determine quotas for subsistence whaling by indigenous peoples - and despite important questions over the impacts that climate change might have on whale numbers, and although evaluations are not in a state of complete readiness for all whale species in all areas, you can see in principle that quotas based on sustainability could be issued at whatever degree of confidence within a few years.
However, quotas currently set by Iceland, Japan and Norway are determined as much by political and commercial considerations as by scientific sustainability. Some are probably lower than a precautionary definition of "sustainability" would imply, others probably higher.
And the "peace process" is also essentially political in nature, with the various governments involved only prepared to endorse it if they gain more than they lose.
So political considerations must come into the IWC's quota setting.
If the proposals were adopted, then, anti-whaling governments would find themselves partaking in the setting of quotas for hunts that according to their own beliefs ought not to exist at all, and in the knowledge that they will be probably be excoriated by environment groups on an issue where public opinion in their countries is pretty firmly on the environment groups' side.
Meanwhile, governments of hunting nations would have to be prepared to accept quotas that are below levels urged by companies operating the hunts. This could be a particularly thorny problem in Iceland where the whaling industry is urging the public to see it as a creator of wealth and employment in a time of economic hardship.
The biggest issue of principle, meanwhile, is that this plan would not remove or even phase out whaling in the Southern Ocean, where Japanese harpoons are busiest.
The Southern Ocean was declared a "whale sanctuary" in 1994. Japan's reasoning for continuing to hunt there is that the sanctuary regulation doesn't cover scientific whaling.
The draft report, in fact, contains a huge contradiction. A new sanctuary would be set up in the South Atlantic, where whaling does not happen now and is extremely unlikely to start, but does not ban whaling from the existing sanctuary in the Southern Ocean, where it does.
There's something to be said for giving goodies even-handedly to each side in an argument; but when the goodies contradict each other to this extent, you have to wonder whether at least one will find the package unpalatable.
A related issue is that anti-whaling countries hope Japan will have ended its Antarctic hunt within 10 years anyway.
The Nisshin Maru, the factory ship, is ageing, and no decision has yet been taken on whether to build a replacement. Agreed internationally-sanctioned quotas for 10 years, environment groups will argue, might help tip the balance in favour - an investment that would ensure Antarctic whaling continued for a lot longer.
One area where the draft is likely to find favour with both pro- and anti-whaling blocs is that for the next 10 years it would limit whaling (apart from subsistence hunts) to the three countries currently doing it.
Yet that may provoke dissent elsewhere. South Korea, for example, has regularly hinted that it would like equal treatment with Japan in any new arrangement.
The IWC holds a special meeting in Florida in a couple of weeks' time, at which this draft will be the principal item on the menu. Signs should emerge then as to how countries feel about it, prior to what will presumably be a final decision at the commission's full annual meeting in June.
That meeting, to be held in Morocco, will almost certainly be the end of the formal two-year "peace process"; it'll either be endorsed or rejected.
Delegates will be aware that rejection will set in stone the acrimony of the recent past; but whether there is enough here for them to endorse it is a hard call to make.