Whaling: From 'bloody' to 'boring'?

People gather to form a giant human whale with the message Santuario (Sanctuary) in Panama City

If you have a thought to spare this week, spare it for Tony Burke.

The Australian minister for sustainability, environment, water, population and communities is due in Panama City for a couple of days to bang the drum for what has been his country's favourite environmental cause - whaling.

But it might be a visit that no-one notices.

When I covered my first International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting back in 2005, Australian journalists were the second biggest posse in the press room (after the Japanese), and certainly the most entertaining.

Then, ministers such as Ian Campbell (who subsequently went on to join the advisory board of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society) and Peter Garrett could denounce Japan's whaling "slaughter" from one end of the conference hall to the other, confident that a TV camera would forever be on hand to bring his judgement to the folks back home - not, one sensed, that they needed any convincing.

This year, not a single Aussie camera crew nor even a humble smith of the written word will be there to record Mr Burke, should he similarly declaim.

As I write these words, I'm sitting on a raised rostrum at the back of the main hall here that's been set up for TV crews - power outlets, audio feeds and all.

But I have it to myself.

In recent years, Australia has been the touchstone for public interest in whaling.

The country has pretences to own a giant slice of the Southern Ocean, it has a thriving whalewatching industry, and the zeal of a recently reformed smoker, having quit the harpoon itself only in 1979.

A quick Google News search in advance of this year's meeting for "Australia + IWC" turned up not a single article, and it's far from being the only country where there's a dearth.

So what's happened?

One answer may lie in how the IWC's agenda is effectively changing.

The biggest issue out there for many supporters and opponents of whaling is Japan's programme in the Southern Ocean - closely followed by Japan's coastal whaling programme, Iceland's fin whale hunt and associated whalemeat exports, and the Norwegian hunt.

But despite all the sound and fury of recent years, inside and outside the IWC, those programmes have continued largely unchanged.

Where there have been changes, they've happened in spite of the IWC.

Japan's annual catch has shrunk through the apparently declining appetite of consumers for whalemeat, depleted government finances, and harassment by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Iceland isn't exporting as much whalemeat as it would like, because, again, of consumer disinterest in Japan.

Added to that, the so-called "peace process" designed to find a compromise between pro and anti-whaling nations concluded in 2010 without agreement, signifying that established official positions are pretty much immutable for the time being.

So IWC discussions have moved on.

This year, aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) is top of the agenda.

And despite serious concerns about humane killing and the blurring lines between what constitutes a subsistence need and what is quasi-commercial, hardly anyone connected with the issue disputes the basic point that indigenous peoples who depend on whalemeat should be allowed to hunt them.

Slowly, and almost despite the intergovernmental nature of the top-line discussions here, the IWC is developing programmes of conservation science - I'll be reporting on some of them later this week.

So it's harder to get angry. Words like "slaughter", which once dripped with blood from a Japanese harpoon, have largely been excised from the IWC lexicon.

A few years ago, Japan's deputy commissioner to the IWC, Joji Morishita, observed that in his view, whaling should become "boring" - uncontroversial, flying under the public radar, like most fisheries issues.

Has his wish come true?

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.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Just to clarify bear baiting,ratting and cock/dog fighting were never forms of hunting whether 'traditional' or otherwise so should be consigned to history and are no great loss to our cultural history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @35Peter,Induits thanks to the French and English fur traders in Canada and present day Alaska have had guns since the 1660's but they only kill to feed and cloth the tribe/village and not on mass.As for cock/dog fighting,bear/bull baiting they were forms of entertainment/ gambling and were quite rightly banned,but have nothing to do with the debate over the rights/wrongs of whaling

  • Comment number 48.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    @46 Is itn possible to be pro and anti-whaling?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    #40 thefrogstar

    Pro-whaling/anti whaling



    Why are so many people limited to two value logic; black and white in a world of infinite shades of colour?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    43 BluesBerry
    "Would this intelligent, emotional creature have the heart to do what humans can do so easily?"

    If dolphins are anything to go by, then yes, definitely. They're brutal creatures that toss about live seals like a cat toys with a mouse. Their pods are more like gangs, which rove around looking to pick fights with rivals.
    I suppose that makes them quite like humans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    @43 So are hyenas, but I guess you'd eat one if it tasted good


    and so are pigs, but a bacon butty is something special

    @42 First we have to get the scientists to prove mermaids do exist - just needs the right funding - Al Gores quiet these days and he's got stacks of money

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Whaling will never be under my radar. These mammals are intelligent, form familial pods, & experience evident emotional distress over & above the physical suffering. Can you imagine the pain when a baby whale loses it mother?
    Sometimes I wish the whale was able to hunt humans, but then I wonder: Would this intelligent, emotional creature have the heart to do what humans can do so easily?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Entropic & Mango,

    The BBC has another arresting article on an elusive seagoing creature which ought to be protected, about which the US government is in denial

    "No evidence of mermaids, says US government"

    Looking at the photo, how about we set up an International Mermaiding Commission for the UN?

    We can split the profits equally between us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    @40 "The US patent office has a rule that it will no longer accept applications for anti-gravity machines."

    That's my next invention out the window and floating majestically towards Japan

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    #36 Entropic man,
    "The real lesson should come from the villagers. They jumped between extremes, from believing in a non-existent wolf to denying a real one."

    You're falling into "denier" accusation mode again. The villagers merely didn't bother to investigate the claims of a proven liar.

    The US patent office has a rule that it will no longer accept applications for anti-gravity machines.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    #34 finbarr
    Whether or not whale meat tastes good should not be relevant. Yes, sustainability is, but also whales' welfare, ie time it takes them to die & amount of pain they suffer.
    According to scientists at American Association for the Advancement of Science, research has shown whales have large, complex brains & a human-like level of self-awareness: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-17116882

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    #29 Robert Lucien
    "Sorry but in the original non- politically correct version the wolf definitely did eat the boy. That's life in medieval parables - often hard and short. "

    The original was in ancient Greek, or Latin, if Wikipedia is to be believed [and it is not always].

    But I agree with the Hobbsian sentiment: "..the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I rest my case

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    #29.Robert Lucien
    #20 thefrogstar
    " medieval parables ."

    The real lesson should come from the villagers.
    They jumped between extremes, from believing in a non-existant wolf to denying a real one.
    The real world is not black and white. Jumping straight from the exaggerated predictions of the environmental doomsters to the assumption that there's nothing to fear oversimplifies reality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    7. mirrorbus
    2ND JULY 2012 - 22:13
    No one would deny small native tribes their right to hunt for seals,polar bears and whales armed with a canoe,arrows and hand thrown harpoon....
    All except thats not how its done. The inuit in Alaska use assault rifles. Hardly 'traditional'.

    Equally by the same logic dogfighting, bear baiting etc were all traditional English past-times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I went to Iceland 19 years ago with an Icelandic girlfriend. Before going I was against whaling but when I was there I tried some whale meat and it tasted great. So as long as these animals can be harvested in a sustainable way I don’t see a problem. I have since been to Japan with work and had whale meat their as well. I enjoyed it just as much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I can to state categorically that I did not eat CanadianRockies.

    MangoChutney @#27, some of Wendy’s ideas are starting to come true such as people leaving the cities & returning to more fulfilling lives on the land, just look at Greece. Financial collapse is good for the environment, time is on our side.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I think you'll find that News Corp & Fairfax got rid of most of the journalists and the remaining few have no travel budget... Mind you if you have a press release or a story from the wire they'll happily publish it...

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    You want evidence of lack of interest? Look at this comment box. A mere 30 of them, of which about 5 are from far right free market nutters, one is from some kind of racist and the rest are just sad shrugs at the state of humanity - including this one.


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