Call for UN debate rejected as whaling talks end

Humpback whales (file photo) Whales are protected under international conservation laws, but can be hunted for "scientific research"

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A bid to take whale conservation to the UN General Assembly failed at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) after criticism from hunting nations.

The motion said many species are not covered by IWC rules, and criticised Japan's scientific whaling programmes.

The delegates' final act was to decide to hold meetings every two years.

Meanwhile, the Danish and Greenland governments will "reflect" on whaling options for Greenland's Inuit after the IWC denied a bid to raise quotas.

The options include setting quotas unilaterally without the IWC's explicit approval, or even withdrawing from the body. Either would be intensely controversial.

Nothing caused more controversy here, though, than South Korea's announcement that it was preparing to allow some of its fishermen to hunt whales under regulations permitting a catch for scientific research.

Japan has had such programmes in place since 1986, including an annual hunt in the Southern Ocean, which has been declared a whale sanctuary.

That was one focus of the resolution, tabled by Monaco, that called on the UN General Assembly to debate whale conversation.

Another was that whaling nations want the IWC's remit restricted to species that have been hunted, while others want it to work for the conservation of all cetaceans.

The resolution invited governments to "consider these issues in collaboration with the UN General Assembly, with a view to contributing to the conservation efforts of the IWC".

People protesting in Seoul against South Korea's bid to allow whale hunting for research purposes South Korean proposals for scientific whaling provoked protests by environmentalists

There was general acceptance that such a resolution should only go forward by consensus, and it was soon clear that consensus was absent.

Norway's Einar Tallaksen said issues regarding cetaceans "are not a matter for the UN General Assembly, but for the competent fisheries organisations, including the IWC".

As far as this meeting is concerned, the proposal is abandoned, though Monaco will work for it within the UN and is launching a "task force" of supportive nations.

"Clearly the whaling countries want to contain any discussion of their whaling inside the IWC," commented Patrick Ramage, director of the global whale programme with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

"They don't want their diplomats at the United Nations to have to defend the indefensible."

Unilateral moves?

On the final day of the IWC's annual meeting, held this time in Panama City, delegations were also mulling the implications of Denmark's decision to leave without a whale-hunting quota for the Greenland Inuit.

They came to Panama asking for increased quotas for humpback and fin whales, in addition to maintaining existing levels for minkes and bowheads.

The bid became more controversial after environment groups reported finding whalemeat on sale in many supermarkets and restaurants, and, with the EU against the expansion, the bid failed.

"We are going to go home and reflect, because this is a situation that needs to be handled with care," said Danish delegation head Ole Samsing.

Experienced observers noted that in previous years, Denmark has been willing to compromise its requests in order to get something agreed.

The EU would have supported a continuation of the existing quotas, but the Danes opted instead to leave with nothing.

"There can be no doubt that Denmark knew when it put the proposal to a vote that it would fail," said Sue Fisher, on behalf of the Washington DC-based Animal Welfare Institute.

Guide to the great whales

"It could have walked out of here days ago with a perfectly adequate quota to meet the subsistence needs of indigenous communities in Greenland for the next six years, but it was prepared to lose everything for a handful of extra whales that, our recent surveys show, could well end up on the menu in tourist restaurants".

Japan's deputy commissioner, Akima Umezawa, said the vote against Greenland had been the most disappointing aspect of a discouraging meeting.

"Many pointed out the commercialism and the increased quota," he said.

"But commercialism is accepted by the definition of [aboriginal] subsistence whaling, and the increased quota was accepted and endorsed by the IWC scientific committee."

The issue is made more complex by the evolving relationship between Greenland, a hunting-based society of just over 50,000 people, and its former colonial ruler.

Several years ago, Greenland formally asked the Danish government to put its whaling outside the IWC's aegis, but it is understood that it would now prefer to remain within the organisation.

It is inconceivable that hunting will stop, so the question is how Greenland intends to go forward.

Its own interpretation of rules on aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) is that countries are entitled to set their own quotas, provided they are consistent with IWC scientific advice. Other countries disagree.

The US is also opening the door to unilateral action, with draft legislation introduced into Congress that would allow the government to set quotas if the IWC denied them.

Equality

Overall, many observers said this had been the most functional IWC meeting for years, with votes taken in an orderly fashion and a relative absence of grandstanding.

Six years ago, the pro- and anti-whaling camps were roughly equal in number.

Now, the anti-whalers clearly have the upper hand, and it was noticeable that many of the Caribbean delegations were down to a single person.

The decision to hold meetings every two years from now on is part of an ongoing process - largely driven by the UK and Australia - aimed at making the commission more functional and efficient.

Delegates concluded by selecting their first ever female chair, St Lucia's Jeannine Compton-Antoine.

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