Small signs of a whaling compromise

Listening to some of the delegates talk, it was hard to understand how and why whaling has become the hotly disputed issue it undoubtedly is. “Whaling is a trivial issue,” said one.

“The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has been meeting every year for 25 years and you’ve made no progress?” wondered another, clearly with little first-hand experience of the dysfunctional annual IWC summits.

As we listened, we looked at the senior Japanese fisheries officials sitting next to representatives of environmental groups and wondered; perhaps something is possible here.

The incentives for both sides to sort out the impasse appear obvious.

Under a global moratorium on hunting, more than 2,000 whales are hunted each year; hardly a triumph for conservation, never mind logic.

Meanwhile, Japanese, Norwegian and Icelandic whalers find themselves excoriated for doing something that is quite legal under international law; hardly an ideal situation for them either.

Then we listened to the news coming in from the Antarctic of the annual stand-off between Greenpeace and Japan’s scientific whaling fleet, and wondered whether we were cocooned in some kind of alternative reality, and whether any meeting of minds was possible.

Useful steers

The scene was a seminar in Tokyo organised recently by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a US-based think-tank.

Desperate to avoid the name-calling and personal abuse that bedevils IWC meetings, Pew was highly selective in its invitations.

Assembled in the hall were delegates from pro- and anti-whaling governments, environmental groups, Japanese MPs, and – most usefully – people who have successfully steered other international negotiations through stormy waters, and could cut through the accumulated layers of historical mistrust and vitriol.

The hall held hardly any journalists, with their thirst for daily blood and hyperbole, and the meeting progressed under the Chatham House rule where the identity of speakers cannot be revealed outside the chamber without their permission, allowing a freedom to speak constructively which seems impossible at the IWC summits.

Pew believes compromise is desirable and possible. Yet a previous symposium it organised in New York had produced, among other intriguing and provocative ideas, the notion that the current stalemate actually suits everybody rather well.

It allows Japan’s Fisheries Agency, for example, to posture as a defender of Japanese interests every time that Greenpeace or the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society obstructs the Antarctic hunt.

On the other side, anti-whaling politicians condemn the “slaughter”, environmental NGOs accordingly shower them in green praise (in return for which NGO leaders get to sit on national delegations), and western journalists write the easy stories their publics appear to want, again with the word “slaughter” and the bravery of their politicians featuring prominently.

So could the second Pew gathering find a way through? Would there be signs that we might ever see a day when countries such as Australia, Brazil or the UK could approve a small measure of heavily-regulated Japanese commercial hunting, for example, perhaps in exchange for a reform of scientific whaling?

Having removed humpbacks from this season’s Antarctic hunt, might Japanese delegates indicate a willingness to consider downscaling further, perhaps removing the endangered fin whale as well?

Could any of the “outsiders” show the IWC the route to a compromise that has so far proven elusive?