Whaling: an indecent proposal

Posted by Willie — 25 April 2010 at 9:59am - Comments

If you’ve seen the media reports on whales over the past couple of weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that there had been some sort of historical deal done. A deal that seems to be being spun as a way to save whales, by allowing some to be hunted. Media spin aside, we’ve been keen to see the detail of what is going to be on the table for our governments at the upcoming International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in June.

Yesterday, at last, the speculation ended when the IWC published the details of a proposal on their website. The proposal is just that, a proposal. Not a deal, and certainly not a done deal. So please, view the over-effusive headlines with some care.

What’s on the table is the result of a lengthy process to try and find a workable way out of the deadlock which has affected it for a number of years.

Despite an international ban on commercial whaling, Norway, Japan and Iceland use legal loopholes and objections to continue hunting whales to sell the meat. The latter two countries still hunt endangered fin whales, and flout international agreements by trading in fin whale meat. Japan alone refuses to acknowledge the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

This latest proposal is billed as a way to reduce the amount of whales being killed, particularly in the Southern Ocean, but in truth the suggested compromises are pretty much all at the expense of the whales.

The big idea is to leave the commercial whaling ban in place, but to grant the countries currently whaling commercially some sort of amnesty, and allow them an IWC-agreed quotas for whales.

These new quotas would be lumped together with 'indigenous’ whaling quotas. In many cases they're suggested to be slightly lower than the current self-appointed quotas these nations use. But there’s not a lot of difference. In total in 2009, between them Iceland, Norway and Japan killed about 1,500 'great whales'; the new proposal would give them a combined total of about 1,400. Over the space of a few years, it’s suggested, the numbers for some species and areas (especially the Southern Ocean) would decrease.

There are undoubtedly some good things too, like the creation of a new Whale Sanctuary in the South Atlantic. But at what price?

This indecent proposal suggests granting quotas for fin whales, and endangered species, to Japan and Iceland. Iceland has no market for fin whale meat so would want to export it to Japan. In theory that should be illegal, but neither country recognises the existing trade ban on the species under CITES.

The proposal also sanctions whaling, albeit for slightly fewer whales, inside the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. And it suggests that somehow whaling by these three nations can be allowed without opening the floodgates to other nations, like South Korea for example, who have expressed an interest in restarting commercial whaling.

Let’s be clear, and it almost goes without saying, Greenpeace opposes commercial whaling.

In my mind this proposal is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, some parts of the IWC aren’t working, but that’s not a reason to legitimise the loopholes, rather than to enforce the internationally-agreed rules. Endangered species, and Whale Sanctuaries should be respected. Let’s face it, there is simply no mileage in any assertion that whaling in the Southern Ocean by Japan is now, or ever was, 'traditional' or 'indigenous'.

And the IWC should be able to address the urgent and huge conservation issues facing the world’s whales without being held hostage by the whaling nations.

The best analogy I can come up with is that this is like a bunch of shoplifters, who have been stealing from a store for decades, sitting down with the manager telling him they want to steal a little bit less, and for him to give them permission to carry on pilfering the rest. Ironically it’s Greenpeace activists exposing embezzlement in Japan who are being charged with theft!   

Whales don’t belong to the whalers. In the last century they wrought damage on a scale that is unimaginable to most of us - wiping out 99% of blue whales,  for example, leaving the species still struggling to recover despite decades of protection.

They also have to deal with constantly evolving new man-made threats like destructive fishing practices, oil and gas development, climate change and military sonar. We’re even now hoovering up krill, that staple foodstuff of many of the biggest whales, for ourselves in the Southern Ocean. Whales are iconic species, symptomatic of healthy oceans, and they play an important role in our ocean ecosystems. If they 'belong' to people at all, then they belong to all of us. We all have a say in what happens. So our governments shouldn't be making deals to legitimise whaling, if we don't want them to.

This year's IWC meeting in Morocco will be a testing time for the whales, and the ban on commercial whaling. You need to make sure your government knows what you expect of them. A deal on any of this is a long way off still.

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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