CASABLANCA, Morocco – A showdown looms this week over the 25-year ban on commercial whaling: Should it be eased, which might mean fewer whales are killed? Or should it remain – leaving Japan, Norway and Iceland to hunt down as many whales as they want?
The International Whaling Commission begins a five-day meeting today in the Moroccan resort of Agadir – arguably its most important gathering since 1986, when a moratorium on commercial whaling halted the factory-style slaughter of tens of thousands of animals every year.
A compromise that would suspend the whaling ban has been drafted by the agency’s chairman, but it’s an unhappy option for nations that abhor whaling. The deal would legitimize commercial hunting in exchange for a drop in the number of whales actually killed by those claiming exemptions to the ban – Japan, Norway and Iceland.
The proposal, the agency says, would end the wildcat whaling that still kills up to 2,000 whales a year, including species on the verge of extinction. Japan’s unrestricted whale hunt, allegedly for “scientific research,” currently sends more whale meat to sushi bars than laboratories.
Since the ban took place, about 33,600 whales have been killed, according to the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington.
The 88-nation whaling commission also hopes to dispel what its chairman calls an “atmosphere of confrontation and mistrust” that has frozen the agency’s work for decades, and to reaffirm its relevance as a regulatory force.
The IWC “is fundamentally broken and must be fixed,” the chief U.S. negotiator, Monica Median, told reporters earlier this year.
IWC Chairman Cristian Maquieira published his proposal in April to bring the three whaling nations back under the agency’s control by allowing them to hunt commercially under closely monitored quotas.
Advocates say 5,000 whales will be saved over the 10-year life of the deal. Opponents question that claim and say the proposal would legitimize hunting for profit and throw a lifeline to a dying industry that has constant confrontations with environmental groups on the world’s oceans.
“The points of view differ a lot,” said Marie-Josee Jenniskens, head of the Netherlands’ delegation. “I wish I could be more optimistic.”
Maquieira says his proposal tried to strike “a delicate balance” that admittedly will satisfy no one.
Under it, Japan would be allowed to hunt in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary, officially declared a no-go zone in 1994 but where Japanese whaling ships haul most of their catch now anyway. The draft says the quotas would involve a “significant reduction” from today’s levels but leaves open the question whether whale meat and other whale products can be traded internationally.
Objections to the draft have been swift and firm.
“The Australian government cannot accept this proposal as it currently stands,” Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett said. Australia has already launched a complaint against Japanese whaling at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the U.N.’s highest court.
The German parliament urged its government to reject the proposal, saying “we can only guess at how fatal the consequences will be for marine ecosystems.”
The United States also has voiced reservations, especially over the number of whales the three countries will be allowed to hunt.