Whaling: Chaos or compromise?

Whales The wrangling means issues such as strandings, ocean noise and ship collisions are not addressed

From the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Jersey:

The chaotic close of this year's IWC meeting had to be seen to be believed.

And for those who argue the body is ill-fit for purpose, archaic, hopelessly riven and suited only for the scrapyard, it provided perfect ammunition.

Let me try to set the picture out for you as best I can.

At the start of the final day, the Buenos Aires group of 14 Latin American countries demanded that their bid to have the South Atlantic Ocean declared a whale sanctuary be heard, debated and resolved, and voted upon if necessary.

This was despite the fact that there was no chance of them gaining the three-quarters majority needed to usher it through.

For the "pro-sustainable-use" bloc, headed by Japan and Iceland, this was unacceptable.

At the last two IWC meetings, the proposal had formed one small component of a much larger compromise package that also included acceptance of Japan's Antarctic whaling programme in scaled-down form, and quasi-commercial quotas for their coastal whaling towns.

The package was formally declared dead at last year's meeting, with each bloc blaming the other for intransigence.

So for Japan and its allies, to have the sanctuary proposal aired again in isolation, when they had been prepared to concede it as part of the big package if they also gained things they wanted, was just unacceptable.

Once it became clear that the Latin Americans were determined to have a vote, the pro-whaling countries got up and walked out, in a bid - as they made clear - to make the meeting inquorate.

The solution was for national representatives to go into a private meeting, to try to find a mutually acceptable way forward.

Guide to whales (BBC)

Even more extraordinarily, the meeting also had to discuss and decide what was meant by "quorate".

Half of the organisation's countries need to be present in order for votes to count; but was that half of all members, half of countries present at the beginning of the meeting, half of the number in the room at the time of the vote?

Different delegates gave me all three definitions; and despite the IWC having existed for 65 years, it's clear that no-one really knows.

You might also be wondering why the chairman and so many of the delegations were anxious to avoid having a vote.

After all, decisions are taken by voting in most national parliaments and in many other international organisations as well.

A two-week meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) might have 50, maybe even more - and it doesn't fall apart.

The issue here is that votes in the IWC used to be ritualised, meaningless, ridiculous, an exercise in grandstanding - because neither bloc was ever going to come near to gaining the three-quarters majority needed to make major changes.

During the two-year "peace process", IWC governments agreed new rules mandating they would strain every sinew to reach consensus where possible, and avoid going back to the years of pointless fractious discord.

The pro-whaling countries said the Latin Americans were doing precisely this, by calling a vote on something that was extracted from a bigger compromise package and which they could not win.

Behind closed doors, reportedly, quite a few other anti-whaling countries told them the same thing - the US and some Europeans, at least.

On the other hand, the Latin Americans insisted that the sanctuary was important to them and they were entitled to call for a vote - which, of course, they were.

Eventually a compromise was found... but finding it took nearly nine hours, time the meeting did not have, as it was already many hours behind schedule.

What the document says is that further efforts to find consensus will be made before the next meeting - and if it can't be found, the issue will go to a vote as the first item on the agenda next time.

The coming year will also be spent deciding what a quorum means in the world of the IWC.

In a sense, what was agreed is less telling than the fact that the process happened in the way it did.

This is my seventh IWC meeting. But many of the other journalists here were on their first - and there's been widespread and wide-eyed amazement along the press balcony at how little time is spent discussing things like whales, or even whaling.

And if next year does see a return to the old days of sterile stand-offs and unwinnable votes, we'll probably see even more points of order, procedural matters and accusations of bad faith - and even less time spent on the things this commission is supposed to be here to do.

Officially, every member government wants to be constructive and take things forward.

But there are two distinct versions of what "forward" means; and beneath the veil of harmony heaves a roiling discordant stew that occasionally, inevitably, boils over.

It's hard to see how this can change unless each side is really willing to yield ground.

This week, the Latin Americans weren't prepared to yield anything because they believe they are right in trying to bring extra conservation measures into force, because they believe the world should be about saving whales, with hunting consigned to the past.

The problem they face is that the other side believes it is right as well.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    By the way, no one catches whales that "are used non-lethally by [y]our own coastal communities". I think anyone lucid can clearly see which side is lacking tolerance when reading your comments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Jose, do you realize that the IWC's purpose is to regulate whaling (and make sure whales resources aren't depleted)? As a member country to the IWC, Japan has a right to ask for whaling quotas (or make use of article 8). There's nothing that forbids a "lethal use" of whales if it can be done sustainably (which it probably is now).

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Imposing their slaughter against our shared whale populations is a violation of international sharing of biodiversity benefits. It is an act of racism, moreover. So it´s not a 'how many whales' game - it´s a much deeper, serious situation we´re fighting against. And it´s a pity that Northern journalists and some other folk just don´t get it, ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    It´s not about how many whales are out there. It´ps about one nation resorting to wanton devastation of the oceans and plain corruption to obtain domestic gain. This is Japan, as proven exhaustively by fact. We in the Southern Hemisphere are tired of Japan backed by its corrupted allies coming down to kill whales which are used non-lethally by our own coastal communities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I'm not pro whaling or anti whaling, but people need to learn more before taking a side.

    Not all whales are endangered, FACT.

    Japan takes no more than 50 Brydes whales from over 30,000, 950 Minke out of over 600,000.

    If its ethical treatment you disagree on, a lot of standard fishing practices are just as harmfull to the animal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Effective whale conservation will never be possible if the IWC doesn't resolve substantive issues first. This became very clear after 3 lost years in a negotiation process that only created a friendly environment for the whaling interests while slowly sinking the rights of the great majority of the IWC to use whale populations exclusively by non lethal means. Please read http://bit.ly/pzd0Fn

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Sorry: read only now your interview with Mr Junichi Sato in "Reflections from Japan"
    and totally agreed on with his views. I don't always agree with Greenpeace, but I think they have chosen the right way in what concerns the whaling issue in Japan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    My guess was that Japan would step out of whaling because ... it needs the money for other more serious things. This "slap in the face", as it might be perceived, could bring them to hold on to the whaling "just for principle" ... probably I'm wrong, but that was my feeling ... I would call it an "own goal"? And "as usual": nothing changed, things are just as they were ... or even worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Maybe it's time to start arming the whales or just pull out of libya altogether

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    (http://www.iwcoffice.org/_documents/commission/IWC63docs/63-WKM&AWI4.pdf) which set out a recommendation for an Ethics Committee to objectively address issues like research whaling &whaling. Norway and other whaling nations blocked this. Animal welfare and ethics are the elephant in the corner of the IWC's room. As long as these issues are not directly addressed the peace will remain skin deep.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    There is only a thin veneer of peace at the IWC. In an earlier blog you noted that 'the substantive divide underneath... remains, with governments entrenched within their own traditional camps.'
    The question is how to unpack the differences and have more rationale and objective discussions about them This year the UK tabled a report on 'Whale welfare and ethics'... (cont)

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Chair called for Commissioners meeting, suggesting it would take just 10 minutes; in fact it took 8 hrs. The meeting puffed out. South Atlantic Sanctuary proposal would become the first item on the agenda of NEXT YEAR. At 8:30pm, after minutes were released, Chair finally brought the meeting back to close. Next year’s meeting will be in Panama. Maybe something more substantive will happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Appeals by Ecuador & Columbia fell on deaf ears; Chair asked Secretary to prepare vote. After Poland suggested a short break, the Chair asked if Brazil & Argentina wanted to go for a vote. Yes, they did: Japan left the room, taking along Iceland, Norway, Mongolia, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco, Korea, Ghana, Palau, Russia, Tuvalu, St. Kitts & others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Next it was South Atlantic Whales Sanctuary, introduced by Brazil, on behalf of the “Buenos Aires Group” (BAG) - consists of all Latin American countries who are IWC members. Palau announced its opposition, citing an absence of scientific merit. India appealed to Palau not to break consensus, which Palau eventually agreed to, but opposition quickened when Iceland spoke against proposal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    First NGO interventions of the meeting came within the hour; Chair called for a half hour coffee break, to allow time for the sides to come together. Break turned out to last 1 hour, at the end of which a rumour spread that Japan was prepared to walk out, denying the meeting of a quorum for vote. That's exactly what happened.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The meeting did not callon Netherlands or Australia to do anything specific, but rather called on all govts to take “appropriate measures”. Sort of all-inclusive and therefore wishy-washy. Beyond Australia reiterating that it fulfils all its legal obligations, there was little comment; resolution slipped through.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Maybe next year.
    The IWC is fractured, but whaling apparently will continue for another year. The meeting started late - one method for ensuring shortened comments and arguments? Only agenda item one, Safety at Sea, got past the starting gate. Japan had done the work of preparing its resolution well, consulting widely and lining up supporters on all sides.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Organisations like The Sea Shepherd Society are completely necessary for whales.

    They shouldn't be needed Governments should be able to do their job, but they can't.

    This doesn't bode well for Whales never mind the myriad of ocean life that does get such good PR or catch the public interest so well. Cod and Tuna for example.

    If we can't "save" the Great Whale we can't save anything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The pro-whaling stance of Japan, Iceland and Norway is no doubt a cause of great embarrassment to many of their citizens. It really is pathetic for a minority lobby to put the importance of political posturing - that's all it is - above the ire of the 'more civilised nations' and the survival of these endangered and defenceless creatures.

    Feel free to join civilisation whenever you're ready...

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Jose, I understand what you mean, but non-lethal research and cooperation on conservation of whales species in the South Atlantic don't need the establishment of a whaling sanctuary when there's already a whaling moratorium and that there's been no whaling in these waters for about 30 years already. In fact, the Buenos Aires group's proposal wasted precious time on more important issues at IWC.


Page 1 of 2



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.