Conciliation talk at whaling meet

The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) opens here shortly (1900 BST Monday) with a new spirit of conciliation in the air.

Pro- and anti-whaling countries, including Japan, say they are looking to co-operate wherever possible.

The 21-year moratorium on commercial whaling will not be changed by this meeting, with anti-whaling countries appearing to command a clear majority.

However, conflict appears likely over hunting by some indigenous peoples.

Aboriginal (or subsistence) permits are given to groups judged to have a strong whaling history and a need for whalemeat.

Greenland wants to expand the scale of its indigenous hunt, and include humpbacks and bowhead whales for the first time; with much of the meat being sold, there are concerns that it is coming too close to being a commercial endeavour.

But the US is desperate to renew quotas for its own indigenous groups here in Alaska, and may find it politically difficult, with its anti-whaling allies, to oppose the Greenland bid.

“There’s a lot of discussion going on with Greenland and others to see if we can reach some compromise that we could support,” said US whaling commissioner Bill Hogarth.

“We realise it’s important to Greenland, but you have to be careful of the species you take, and whether you have scientific justification,” he told BBC News.

Meeting of minds?

Last year the pro-whaling camp enjoyed its first triumph in 20 years with the passing, by a single vote, of a motion calling for the eventual resumption of commercial whaling.

This year the balance of power has shifted, with new members such as Croatia, Cyprus, Ecuador, Greece and Slovenia weighing in on the anti-whaling side, against only Laos as a probable new pro-whaling country.

In recent years, the IWC has been riven by a fundamental divide between the two camps, its meetings marked by emotional and often aggressive language.

Preliminary exchanges here have been in a much more conciliatory spirit, with delegates on both sides talking of finding common ground.

“Whaling will continue in some manner – Norway, Iceland, Japan, even the US and Russia (with their indigenous peoples) – without true control from the IWC,” said Japan’s alternate (deputy) commissioner Joji Morishista.

“We have only two choices – either doing nothing and just fighting in the IWC forever, or we have controlled whaling – and I think the choice should be clear that controlled whaling is much better than just fighting each other.”

The last time the indigenous quotas came up for review, five years ago, Japan blocked them in protest against the refusal of a similar allowance for its own coastal communities; but it will not do so this time.

Standing firm

Japan has, though, asked that its coastal communities should be permitted to hunt a small number of minke whales commercially, with the meat being distributed locally. In return it would subtract a similar number of whales from its existing hunt, which it conducts under the banner of scientific research.

It will also seek a strong resolution against the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which disrupted Japan’s 2006-7 Antarctic hunt, holing one of the Japanese vessels.

In the first concrete sign of a new rapprochement, Japan is working on a joint resolution with New Zealand, one of the fiercest critics of Tokyo’s scientific whaling.

Many environment groups are deeply unhappy about the message of compromise and conciliation, and about any notion that anti-whaling countries would settle for less than enforcing and enhancing the current global ban on all scientific and commercial whaling.

“I was under the impression that we had a global whale sanctuary already, namely the moratorium,” said Andy Ottaway of the UK-based group Campaign Whale.

“And I feel it quite depressing that here we’re talking about having half a sanctuary.”