Saturday, June 24, 2006

IWC update

Dr. Paul Spong, who I interviewed last summer, steadily filed reports all last week from the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting at St. Kitts and Nevis, where the Japanese, as expected, took control of the IWC's agenda for the first time.

Dr. Spong's June 17 report contained a disturbing tidbit of informationL
Very unfortunately, the US is giving signals that it is willing to make a deal with Japan, apparently without regard to the danger to whales that it involves. Though couched in terms of defending whales, today's US interventions included language like "compromise" and "the need to move forward", quite enough, as things turned out, for Japan to praise the US in its concluding remarks on the RMS issue. No one seems to know precisely what Japan and the US are hatching, but some kind of deal seems to be in the works, and it's certain to be bad for whales.

That ominous continued with what occurred the next day, when Japan rammed through its only victory of the meeting: approvals of the "St. Kitts Declaration," which opened the door for a return to industrial whaling under the aegeis of the IWC, as Spong explained in his June 18 report:
Something akin to pandemonium broke out at the St. Kitts meeting of the International Whaling Commission today, with pro-whaling delegates cheering and applauding even before Japan’s first victory was announced. The late afternoon vote was on the "St. Kitts Declaration", a document from the host nation originally described to Commissioners as a consensus- building device. It was first produced yesterday (after a long delay) with another slightly revised version coming out this morning. The Declaration is very clearly a proposal to take the IWC back to its 1946 beginnings, i.e. to solely concentrate its efforts on commercial whaling. Though the document was voted on as if it was a Resolution, it was not. Rather, it was a statement of opinion by 30 nations, 26 of which Japan has brought into the IWC under its votes-for-aid scheme. Be that as it may, the 33-32-1 result was truly a breakthrough for Japan's delegation, which had been defeated on every previous vote in the meeting. One can only imagine their relief, perhaps especially because two members of Japan's Diet had come to St. Kitts with the delegation.

A press release from the International Fund for Animal Welfare explored similarly the row over the "declaration," with the following reponse from IFAW officials:
"This amounts to a sneak attack on the IWC. After losing on every single proposal they brought to this meeting, the whaling countries and their supporters cooked up a non-binding statement, sprang it on the commission and pushed it to a vote. They want to kill whales, and they're willing to kill the Commission to do it. But this is no death blow, just a stinging flesh wound.

"We are gravely concerned, but not disheartened. The moratorium on commercial whaling remains and we may see further shifts in voting at this very meeting later this week. Whatever happens here in the coming days, we will continue working inside and outside the IWC to build a better world for animals and people and to protect whales for future generations to see."

As Spong's June 19 report makes clear, though, the Japanese victory carried little momentum, with an interesting attempt to crate a coalition between whale-watching organizations and whalers:
The report on whale watching brought mixed news. Impacts of whale watching vessels on several cetacean species have now been demonstrated, as have impacts from other vessel traffic. At the same time, there are huge economic benefits to whale watching, which is now growing at 45% annually in some small Pacific island communities. It is very clear that the economic benefits of whale watching far outweigh those of whaling. Not to be outdone, Iceland, Japan and St. Lucia stated that whaling and whale watching are not incompatible, and can exist side by side. How that could happen in practice is a little unclear, but the issue was not pursued.

This brings to mind a passage from Jim Nollman's excellent book The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet, which describes the growth of whale watching within the tourist industry, including Japan's [p. 110]:
As the brand-new road winding up to the whale-watching platform at Chichi-jima verifies, within Japan living whales now provide a viable commercial alternative to killing whales. Worldwide, whale watching probably earns as much money today as whaling ever did. A 1992 study disclosed that 3.4 million Americans and 4.4 million people worldwide partook that year, spending over $46 million on tickets and $225 million on related travel expenses, excluding food and lodging. While the industry generally promotes preservation, in a few places its actions flagrantly disregard that message. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Japanese entrepreneur who owns both a whale-watching boat and a whaling boat. If his whale-watching skipper sights pilots whales in the morning, there is a fair chance his whaling skipper will be dispatched in the afternoon.

The meeting closed inconclusively but ominously. Though the Japanese had only one real victory at the meeting -- despite their best efforts to stack the vote -- the situation long-term does not look promising. They will be in charge of setting the IWC agenda now, which means the assault on the whaling ban is about to begin.

And it appears the Bush administration will serve as a willing enabler. As Spong observed in his June 20 report:
The 58th meeting of the IWC came to an end with consensus (twice) at last. The next meeting is to be in Anchorage, Alaska, and the one after that in Yokohama, Japan. Possibly not coincidentally, the next Chair of the IWC is the US, and the Vice-Chair Japan.

Does this smell of something unpleasant for whales? Probably.

[Be sure to read Spong's wrapup report on the meeting, as well as a CBC interview with him.]

The possibility of a U.S. Japan alliance remains somewhat murky right now, but Carol J. Williams in the Los Angeles Times reports that U.S. officials are using the language of "compromise" and appear to view the "St. Kitts Declaration" as an acceptable framework:
"We've gotten to an impasse," Hogarth said, alluding to the polarization between opponents of commercial whaling and those supporting Japan, Norway and Iceland in the killing of more than 2,000 whales a year in the name of scientific research or tradition.

"What the United States wants to do is try to find a way to protect whales but at the same time recognize some harvest," he said, proposing a negotiated quota for hunting of whales no longer endangered in exchange for closing the "scientific whaling" loophole in the commercial ban. If Japan wants to hunt whales in the name of culture or science, those killings would come off its quota, he said.

... Hogarth said moratorium supporters wouldn't be "held hostage." But he said a spirit of compromise was needed to break the institutional gridlock.

He said he was keenly aware that the American public would never endorse commercial whaling, but he said the IWC impasse had rendered the body dysfunctional and unable to protect even endangered species.

As the story also explores, the Bush administration already has a questionable record when it comes to whales; its insistence on defending deep-sonar testing by the military and blasting noise from air guns used in oil exploration:
U.S. officials have been fighting efforts to address the effect on marine life of noise pollution, probably fearing it could have consequences for military sonar, said Joel Reynolds, a lawyer in charge of marine mammal protection for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"There's a pattern of denying scientific fact for reasons of ideological perspective," Reynolds said of the Bush administration's environmental positions. "We've seen it with climate, on military sonar, on mercury, on seismic surveys. And it's a pattern that is really troubling because they are denying facts about problems that require action."

Reynolds described the administration as "the most anti-environmental this country has ever had" and blamed a tuned-out American public for taking for granted the whaling ban, which he called the "greatest conservation success of the 20th century."

Evidently, it may prove short-lived in the 21st century.

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