‘Clean-up bid’ tops agenda

Whaling by indigenous peoples and reforms to prevent “votes for cash” allegations are set to top the agenda at this year’s International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Jersey.

Previous years have seen ire directed at Japan over its Antarctic hunts.

But Japan’s current plans are unclear, with its policy under review.

The UK is proposing reforms to make the IWC more open, while some campaigners are angry about US plans to maintain hunting by Alaskan native peoples.

The meeting in the Channel Islands will also discuss proposals to ensure good practice in the whale-watching industry worldwide, and a bid to make the South Atlantic a sanctuary for whales.

Anti-whaling countries are expected to criticise Iceland and Norway over their continuation of commercial hunting

But criticism of Japan is likely to be more muted than usual, following the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.

“There’s been a huge loss of life in coastal communities in Japan, including among many in the fishing industry and those associated with whaling – that’s understood, and our sympathies go out to them,” said UK Environment Minister Richard Benyon.

“Japan is a country that Britain is close to and supportive of in their hour of need – but we do disagree on whaling, and we aim to… have a constructive conversation about it,” he told BBC News.

It is not clear that Japan intends to continue with its annual Antarctic hunt, conducted under regulations permitting whaling for scientific research.

The most recent whaling season ended early, with officials admitting the fleet could not cope with harassment by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessels.

A committee composed mainly of academics is reviewing the existing policy, which is costing the government more and more money as demand for whale meat falls; but its conclusions will not emerge until later this year.

However, whaling around the Japanese coast is continuing, despite the destruction by the tsunami of Ayukawa, one of the main ports.

Cash questions

The most eye-catching of the UK reform proposals is that governments should have to pay their membership subscriptions by bank transfer, creating an auditable trail.

Currently, subscriptions can be paid in cash, and rumours abound of developing countries’ delegations turning up with bags full of money – with anti-whaling campaigners claiming the money came from Japan, in return for that country’s support.

Immediately before last year’s meeting, the Sunday Times newspaper published reports from undercover journalists that suggested some small countries that traditionally supported Japan would be willing to change sides in return for funding.

“[The IWC] has been going since 1946, and it needs to modernise its procedures so it doesn’t leave itself open to the kinds of allegations made a year ago,” said Mr Benyon.

Other components of the proposed reforms include prompt publication of minutes and decisions, the acceptance only of properly reviewed science, and more involvement for non-governmental organisations.

The UK proposal failed to find unanimous EU support – reportedly because Denmark, which represents Greenlanders rather than Danes within the IWC, would not back it.

And Tomas Heidar, who heads Iceland’s delegation, suggested it would not meet with universal approval.

“There are some elements in the proposal that are totally unacceptable to us,” he said.

Iceland recently embarked on talks with the EU over joining the 27-nation bloc. With the EU opposed to whaling, it could prove to be an important issue, alongside wider concerns that EU fishing boats could be given access to the fecund Icelandic waters.

Rising respect

Last year’s IWC meeting in Morocco marked the end of a two-year “peace process” attempting to find a compromise between pro- and anti-whaling nations.

It came to nothing, although both blocs say relations between the parties are more constructive as a result.