Renowned BC-based whale expert Dr. Paul Spong reports on Day 1 of the 64th annual International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting, taking place this week in Panama.
One of the great things about Panama is the predictability of the weather. When we got here, about the first thing we learned was that it rained at 4pm each day, with the rain accompanied by thunder and lightning, and that the downpour would stop as suddenly as it began. The thunder and lightning bit turned out to be true, as we sat chatting near the venue pool with a couple of Green Vegans yesterday, but “rain” was clearly an understatement. On cue at 4pm, after a great crack and drum roll, the Heavens opened. I tried to take a photo of the waterfall bouncing off the pavement, but the image turned out to be so blurred I regretted not turning on video. Half an hour later it was over, and after that much time again the pavements were dry. Awesome.
Potentially awesome, too, is what is happening in the room here. IWC 64 is looking like the last round in this fight for a couple of years, as the Commission will almost certainly move to biennial meetings, and it’s shaping up to be a brouhaha. I have a feeling the word “enough!” is in the air, and that the folk who are lovers of whales aren’t going to take it any more. They occupy a clear majority of the seats, yet they cannot exert their will, thanks to the corruption spread by Japan with the active cooperation of Norway and Iceland, with Denmark close beside.
This morning, the ambition of Latin American countries to establish a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary was defeated once again, this time by a narrower margin than in previous attempts that began in 1998, but still a defeat. The outcome was unsurprising, including to the proponents, but the point was made. A 64% majority supported their proposal, short of the ¾ majority demanded by Commission rules, but enough to be called a landslide victory in other arenas. The fact that a vote was held at all amounted to a watershed moment in that it was the first IWC vote of any kind taken in 4 years. Last year the mere thought of a vote was enough to tear the meeting asunder because of Japan’s fear of things slipping beyond its control. This time, perhaps because of a change of leadership in its delegation, Japan was less strident, though the outcome was the same. No Sanctuary for whales in the South Atlantic. The decision leaves open the door to future commercial exploitation, a future that is clearly on Japan’s mind despite the real world, which includes declining interest in domestic consumption of whales at home, and increasing opposition abroad.
Very sadly, the USA is party to the unholy brew that is pushing whales onto the old track where they are seen solely as resources to be exploited by whoever comes along with a wish list. In this meeting, the wish list includes an “aboriginal” request by St. Vincent and the Grenadines that dates “all the way” back to 1875 (hardly ancient history) when a family whale killing business started up on the tiny Caribbean island of Bequia. At one point in the past there was some sympathy for the old whaler, which was accompanied by a tacit understanding that the hunt would end when he died. Not so. The old whaler has gone but his legacy has been seized by Japan in a cynical move towards the goal of having its coastal whaling operations declared “traditional”, if not strictly aboriginal, and therefore allowed under IWC rules.
Over the past year, the U.S.A. has led an ad hoc group discussion aimed at settling the aboriginal whaling issue at this meeting. Somehow, it came up with the crazy idea that bundling all the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling requests together would be the easiest way for it to secure a 4 or 6 year Bowhead quota for its native Alaskan communities. It’s unsure what tea was served at the ad hoc get-togethers, but the insult of this morning’s vote, combined with the prospect of having to agree to the brutal slaughter of mother and baby humpbacks, was sticking in the craw of many Latin American delegates by the end of this day. Accompanying that thought was the marvelous video imagery of living humpbacks presented by Panama in the opening session – just about everyone applauded enthusiastically, though not Japan. The upshot is a real possibility that a vote will be demanded on the request by St. Vincent and the Grenadines. If this happens, the veneer of politeness that frames this meeting may fray.
Tomorrow, we will find out whether tonight’s party, hosted by Panama, was sufficient to achieve the reconciliation of views hoped for by the new Swiss Chair at the end of this afternoon’s session, or whether the distant sounds of thunder we’re hearing are the drums of war.
Dr. Paul Spong is a neuroscientist and cetologist from New Zealand. He has spent more than 30 years researching orcas in BC and is credited with increasing public awareness of whaling, through his involvement with Greenpeace and the International Whaling Commission.