Whale meeting heads for discord

Right whale tail
Image caption The waters of the International Whaling Commission are teeming with politics - but whales themselves can be scarce

The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Panama is about six weeks away, and it's shaping up to be an important and perhaps defining moment.

A recent change of rules means resolutions have to be posted on the organisation's website 60 days before meetings begin, so we have more advance notice of countries' real intentions than formerly.

The Latin American bloc - known as the Buenos Aires Group for these purposes - has lodged a bid to create a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Japan has set down a motion reserving its right to request a commercial or quasi-commercial hunting quota for minke whales in its coastal waters.

Monaco is looking for the IWC to refer whale protection to the UN; and, as happens every five years, various countries will be seeking to extend subsistence hunting permits for indigenous communities, mainly in the Arctic.

The South Atlantic sanctuary and Japan's coastal whaling bid have both been tabled year after year.

Mutual acceptance of these proposals was one of the main elements of the "peace package" that countries pursued for three years before admitting at the 2010 meeting that minds couldn't quite meet.

But the two main blocs within the IWC don't agree on where the process formally known as the Future of the IWC is now.

When I spoke during the week to Brazil's commissioner to the IWC, Marcos Vinicius Pinta Gama, he described the compromise package as "dead", and I have heard the same thing from several European delegates.

But Japan's deputy commissioner Akima Umezawa disagreed.

"Look at last year's report - it says we should continue dialogue, continue to build trust and encourage continued co-operation," he said.

"So the Future of the IWC process is not dead."

So here is part of what makes this year's cocktail of resolutions potentially explosive.

During the course of the Future of the IWC negotiations, governments agreed that they would not put resolutions to the vote, but try for consensus.

IWC rules mean that most important changes require a three-quarters majority - and with the commission split roughly 50-50 into countries that oppose whaling and those that vote for its continuance, the prospects of critical measures being passed are somewhere near zero.

Last year, despite the maths, the Latin American bloc insisted on its right to put the whale sanctuary proposal to a vote.

Japan and its allies said this was a breach of faith, as they had been prepared to accept the sanctuary bid as long as it was part of a compromise package.

So they walked out - which the anti-whaling bloc regarded as a breach of faith. A recent communique from the Buenos Aires Group called it "abusive behaviour".

There came the somewhat surreal realisation that no-one knew how a quorum was defined in IWC rules.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Causes of whale deaths such as pollution are on the IWC agenda - but politics may block discussion

And after a year's discussion within a small working group, it's clear that as yet there is still no agreed definition.

You might think it should be a simple question to settle.

But in the febrile and anarchic world of whaling, it's become politicised, with different blocs arguing for the position that suits them best.

In order to get last year's meeting closed, the compromise was that the sanctuary vote would be held over until this year, when it will be the first substantive item on the agenda.

And Mr Pinta Gama told me that the Latin American bloc is not intending to hold back.

"We hope common sense will prevail, that we'll be able to have a normal meeting with clear rules including the one on the quorum, and that we'll be able to take a decision on this [sanctuary] proposal that has been on the table for many years.

"It's going to be difficult, we know, but we think that we have to pursue this objective."

Dr Umezawa, however, was equally clear that the sanctuary bid will not enjoy the support of the pro-whaling countries.

"There is simply no scientific evidence for the sanctuary proposal... there is no need for a sanctuary while the [commercial whaling] moratorium is in effect, and anyway no whaling takes place within the boundary of the proposed sanctuary," he said.

"And the proposal is part of the Future of the IWC package; so we cannot accept cherry-picking."

The language of Japan's coastal whaling proposal hints that it will table a vote on it if the Buenos Aires Group presses for a vote on the South Atlantic sanctuary.

But before any vote takes place, the commissioners have to decide their definition of a quorum. And based on previous experience, that could take a while - perhaps even a majority of the meeting, given the politicised nature of the dispute.

"Nobody wants a repeat of last year because that was a poor show, and deeply undermines the credibility of the commission," observed the long-time commissioner for Monaco, Frederic Briand.

"Should we again get involved in a procedural war at the meeting in Panama, all hopes would be lost that the IWC could properly function."

A long procedural wrangle would matter outside the IWC too.

Every moment spent on what a quorum means is a moment less that can be used to discuss substantive issues that are already struggling to get a decent hearing, such as the growing impact of ocean noise on cetaceans and the implications of climate change.

And the countries pursuing subsistence quotas for their indigenous groups - Russia, Denmark (on behalf of Greenland), St Vincent and the Grenadines, and above all the US - will be stalked by the spectre of 2002, when a political stand-off put the future of subsistence whaling at risk.

The picture of an IWC heading back to the dysfunctional, squabbling days before the "peace process" is one that many find unappealing.

And that's why Monaco's Frederic Briand - with the support of many other anti-whaling countries - has tabled a motion that would see whale conservation "sent upstairs" to the UN.

"We have a moratorium on commercial whaling that's been in place for at least 25 years, but we see it's business as usual for the whaling countries," he said.

"Despite the moratorium, about 35,000 whales have keen killed by three countries. So there's a failure of the IWC to enforce its own resolutions."

His camp believes a change of scene is also needed because the IWC numbers less than half of the world's countries among its members, and deals with less than half of the world's cetacean species.

"Our proposal at the UN will embrace all highly migratory species of cetacean," he said. "In some regions they are currently protected by marine protected areas, and in others they're killed - this is a nonsense."

The draft resolution "Invites the forthcoming UN General Assembly to consider this question in the context of outstanding issues relating to Oceans and the Law of the Sea, with a view to promoting good order in the oceans in compliance with Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration."

This resolution only needs a simple majority to pass, and so the odds ought to be in its favour given that anti-whaling countries currently make up more than half of the commission.

However, the EU always votes as a bloc in the IWC now, and must decide what to do by consensus. And there is a theory that Denmark may hold out against the rest of the EU, as it has done before, if it feels that subsistence quotas for the Greenland Inuit are under threat.

Politics, politics, politics; the waters of the IWC are riddled with it.

Ever since I began covering the issue back in 2005 there have been regular mutterings about whether the IWC has a future; yet so far it's endured, with most member countries seeing collapse as a last resort.

But if delegates in Panama spend days locked in meetings where wrangling about the definition of a quorum is used as a proxy for much more fundamental divisions... what then?