Whaling: Voting, yes or no?

A southern right whale
Anti-whaling countries are expected to criticise the likes of Iceland and Norway over their continuation of commercial hunting

"It's really quiet this year..."

That's probably the observation I've heard most often so far at this year's International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting.

And it's not a comment on the nature of the Jersey, the hosts - one of the Channel Islands whose precise relationship with the UK would take an entire blog post to set down.

Tranquil it is out there... but it's the unfamiliar tranquility inside the conference hotel that has people talking intensely about what there is to talk about.

Just a few years ago, the twin blocs of countries in favour of and opposed to whaling slung verbal darts at each other all week long with barely a pause for breath.

Much of the vitriol was real, reflecting the deep divide in the world between people who see whales as intrinsically special creatures that should not be harmed under any circumstances, and those for whom whales are wild creatures like any others.

Those vitriolic times did not see any of the deeper issues resolved, however, and so the world of whaling went through two years of attempted peace and reconciliation in which everyone tried to be nice to everyone else in public while making efforts behind the scenes to find common ground.

The substantive part of that didn't work - an issue that I covered last year.

So you might have expected business as usual to be resumed this year, with Japan - traditionally the main target for campaigners' anger - in the sights once more.

Game change

But following the whaling fleet's abrupt exit from the Antarctic last season, and with the nation struggling to rebuild after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March, no-one knows what its plans are - and given the loss of life, no-one wants to appear harsh with their comments here.

The change in Japanese circumstances and two years of attempting to find a middle way have thrown over the established way of doing things, at least temporarily; and no-one seems entirely sure what the new rules of engagement are.

The peace process has gone; but the peace itself remains.

Nevertheless, the substantive divide underneath also remains, with governments entrenched within their own traditional camps.

But any manifestations of that divide, with different blocs proposing changes they think needed, are mostly absent.

In private, delegations are widely reported to be shying away from anything like a vote that could bring divisions out into the open again - abetted, some delegates maintain, by the commission's officers.

It's conceivable that this is having an unexpected, and unwelcome, side effect.

If they want to vote here, governments have to keep their subscription payments up to date.

The meeting is discussing proposals to ensure good practice in the whale-watching industry worldwide

As of the meeting's opening, 22 countries were not up to date. That's about a quarter of the IWC's membership, and a huge increase on previous years.

Why this should be is not clear; but there has to be a chance that some are thinking "well, if I have to pay dues in order to vote, and there aren't going to be any votes, why should I pay?"

If someone does break ranks and call for a vote, the stampede from the main meeting room to the office where the finance officer sits could potentially rival any of the world's great whale migrations.

South Atlantic sanctuary

There are issues on the table that could yet lead bring discordant notes into the current harmony.

Latin American countries may launch a bid to have the South Atlantic Ocean declared a whale sanctuary.

However, Japan is reported to have warned in private that if the Latin Americans go ahead, it will submit a proposal to allow quasi-commercial whaling by some of its coastal communities, which currently operate under regulations permitting hunting for scientific research.

That would set the cat among the pigeons - or, to use a more relevant analogy, the orca among the dolphins.

But I wouldn't bet on it happening.

The pro-peace angle is that it's really hard to make substantive changes to the regulation of whaling because votes on big issues require a three-quarters majority in order to pass, and no-one's likely to get that; so why make waves?

But others are muttering that there's no point in coming to meetings like this unless you do propose the reforms you believe necessary - and force a vote, if necessary, and deal with such fallout as may ensue.