Science & Environment

'Clean-up bid' tops agenda for whaling meet

"Research" whaling vessel leaving port
Image caption Japan's whaling plans are unclear, with one centre badly damaged by the March tsunami

Whaling by indigenous peoples and reforms to prevent "votes for cash" allegations are set to top the agenda at this year's International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Jersey.

Previous years have seen ire directed at Japan over its Antarctic hunts.

But Japan's current plans are unclear, with its policy under review.

The UK is proposing reforms to make the IWC more open, while some campaigners are angry about US plans to maintain hunting by Alaskan native peoples.

The meeting in the Channel Islands is also discussing proposals to ensure good practice in the whale-watching industry worldwide, and a bid to make the South Atlantic a sanctuary for whales.

Anti-whaling countries are expected to criticise Iceland and Norway over their continuation of commercial hunting.

But criticism of Japan is likely to be more muted than usual, following the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.

"There's been a huge loss of life in coastal communities in Japan, including among many in the fishing industry and those associated with whaling - that's understood, and our sympathies go out to them," said UK Environment Minister Richard Benyon.

"Japan is a country that Britain is close to and supportive of in their hour of need - but we do disagree on whaling, and we aim to... have a constructive conversation about it," he told BBC News.

It is not clear that Japan intends to continue with its annual Antarctic hunt, conducted under regulations permitting whaling for scientific research.

The most recent whaling season ended early, with officials admitting the fleet could not cope with harassment by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessels.

A committee composed mainly of academics is reviewing the existing policy, which is costing the government more and more money as demand for whale meat falls; but its conclusions will not emerge until later this year.

However, whaling around the Japanese coast is continuing, despite the destruction by the tsunami of Ayukawa, one of the main ports.

Cash questions

The most eye-catching of the UK reform proposals is that governments should have to pay their membership subscriptions by bank transfer, creating an auditable trail.

Image caption Whaling by indigenous peoples may come in for more scrutiny this time round

Currently, subscriptions can be paid in cash, and rumours abound of developing countries' delegations turning up with bags full of money - with anti-whaling campaigners claiming the money came from Japan, in return for that country's support.

Immediately before last year's meeting, the Sunday Times newspaper published reports from undercover journalists that suggested some small countries that traditionally supported Japan would be willing to change sides in return for funding.

"[The IWC] has been going since 1946, and it needs to modernise its procedures so it doesn't leave itself open to the kinds of allegations made a year ago," said Mr Benyon.

Other components of the proposed reforms include prompt publication of minutes and decisions, the acceptance only of properly reviewed science, and more involvement for non-governmental organisations.

The UK proposal failed to find unanimous EU support - reportedly because Denmark, which represents Greenlanders rather than Danes within the IWC, would not back it.

And Tomas Heidar, who heads Iceland's delegation, suggested it would not meet with universal approval.

"There are some elements in the proposal that are totally unacceptable to us," he said.

Iceland recently embarked on talks with the EU over joining the 27-nation bloc. With the EU opposed to whaling, it could prove to be an important issue, alongside wider concerns that EU fishing boats could be given access to the fecund Icelandic waters.

Rising respect

Last year's IWC meeting in Morocco marked the end of a two-year "peace process" attempting to find a compromise between pro- and anti-whaling nations.

It came to nothing, although both blocs say relations between the parties are more constructive as a result.

"The atmosphere within the IWC has improved and relations between delegations on the two sides have improved - there's more respect for different views and it is now less likely that the IWC will fall apart," Mr Heidar told BBC News.

"We don't expect much to happen at this meeting, but we will naturally make use of the event to underline our policy which is all about sustainable use of living marine resources. In recent years we have experienced a growing understanding for this concept."

The US played a leading role in the "peace process", which garnered it a lot of criticism from some anti-whaling organisations.

This year, along with New Zealand, the US has tabled a motion asking the IWC to "encourage continuing dialogue" between governments regarding the commission's future.

Some campaigners say this shows the US is continuing to appease Japan so it will not block a bid to renew subsistence hunting quotas for indigenous Inupiat communities in Alaska when that issue comes up for review next year.

Indigenous (or Aboriginal) whaling is usually relatively uncontroversial, despite the fact that its record is markedly worse than commercial hunts in terms of how long whales take to die; but that may not be the case this time.

"The issue of US meddling is so serious as to warrant bringing the 'Aboriginal' whaling issue from under the rug where most everyone tries to keep it," said Jose Truda Palazzo of the Latin American Cetacean Conservation Center.

"It is widely known that most communities who benefit from this exemption no longer actually 'need' it for survival, although some arguably do have cultural claims.

"Latin America has an enormous discomfort with what the US has been doing over the 'Future of the IWC' process in trying to pass appeasement resolutions for a deal at any cost to get Japanese support for its quotas in 2012, and also we would like to have to have a wider, more open review of the legitimacy of aboriginal claims."

The IWC meeting, in the Jersey capital St Helier, runs until Thursday.

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