Opinion

Watching Whalers and Whales in Madeira

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After a year of meetings and conversations, a special working group of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) charged with solving the Gordian knot of whale conservation will officially request another year of work.

This request will take place at the IWC annual meeting this week on the Portuguese island of Madeira.

The tangled knot twists around the status of the moratorium on commercial whaling, which is being circumvented by Japan, as well as Norway and Iceland.

Since the moratorium began in 1986, IWC records show that more than 30,000 whales have been killed by a few remaining whaling countries.

Among the species targeted are some that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists as endangered, such as fin and sei whales, and vulnerable, such as sperm whales.

Under the international treaty of 1946 that governs the IWC, its member states do not need to ask IWC permission to allow the killing of whales if they claim that the purpose is scientific research.

In 1987, the Japanese government launched its first "scientific whaling" programme, targeting 300 minke whales in the Southern Ocean.

However, after the whales are sampled by Japanese scientists, the meat is sold like any other fisheries catch - or stored frozen when there is not enough demand.

Every year, Japan's "research" has expanded. Currently two programmes are conducted: in the North Pacific and the Southern Ocean, with a ceiling of roughly 1,400 whales of five different species.

'Win-win'

In Madeira, Japan will once again be urged to agree to abandon its scientific whaling. This is a key requirement for countries opposing whaling.

One hook for Japan could be that in exchange for dropping scientific whaling, the IWC could authorise some whaling by Japan's small coastal whalers around the Japanese coast, under IWC supervision and management.

Some think that this could be a win-win scenario.

Countries in the southern hemisphere that demand an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean, an area declared a sanctuary for whales by the IWC in 1994, could be satisfied that whales there would not be hunted, and that Japanese coastal whaling would come back under the control of the IWC.
 
At the same time, the Japanese delegation could return home, claiming that their advocacy on behalf of coastal whalers has been heard, that the underwriting of its costly whaling operations will stop, and that the decades-long international wrangling over its whaling in the high seas, which has been bad for Japan's reputation worldwide, will end.

The IWC could also move on to newer problems that face whales, such as toxic and noise pollution, climate change, collisions with ships and entrapment in fishing nets.

A former spokesperson for Japan's Foreign Affairs Ministry, Tomohiko Taniguchi, made an almost identical proposal in a landmark article published in a Japanese magazine earlier this year.

Mr Taniguchi has said publicly what many of his colleagues presumably think quietly, which is that Japan's national interest "is not served by losing friends needlessly as a result of stubbornly insisting on fighting an unwinnable war".

Employment opportunities

But a positive response from Japan in the negotiations has been elusive.

And whether everyone on all sides of the issue can live with such a compromise is unclear. There are concerns that this could open a Pandora's box with other countries that may also be keen to engage in coastal whaling.

South Korea, for example, has suggested for some time that if Japan is allowed to go whaling in the Sea of Japan, which the Koreans call the Sea of Korea, they would want to do so as well.

The Pew Environment Group would prefer that commercial whaling be brought to an end altogether.

But we see merit in the proposal flagged by Mr Taniguchi and others, to offer an immediate way forward because maintaining the status quo is untenable.

Japanese scholars have also argued that in the longer term, once government subsidies for scientific whaling are gone, the reality of the market might well precipitate the end of whaling.

Whale watching and other non-lethal uses for tourist, educational and scientific purposes are far more profitable than whaling.

The people of the island of Madeira, where the IWC is meeting this year, pride themselves on having ended their traditional whaling in the mid-1980s.

Now, whale-watching contributes more to the local economy than whale hunting did, and this form of eco-tourism creates employment for former whale hunters and boatmen. The same could be true for Japan as well.

If the IWC decides this week to continue the dialogue on the future of whale conservation, this annual meeting in Madeira may exhaust its agenda fairly quickly, waiting for Japan to come back with some serious proposals.

If so, instead of going home early, it might be a good idea for delegates to pursue their conversations informally on board Madeira's whale watching boats, and see for themselves that there is no need to kill whales to make money.