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Beached in Chile


The International Whaling Commission has had its 60th meeting, this time in Santiago, Chile.  Proceedings have followed their traditional pattern; hostilities have been reasserted between pro-whaling parties and those reluctant to give any ground on the matter.  A delegate from Iceland has gone so far as to dismiss any humane interest in whales as conservational gibberish: this, he says is not a matter of the ‘survival of the cutest’.

It all started optimistically.  Some 24 nations agreed to broker a resolution between pro- and anti-whaling nations.  The Australian environment minister Peter Garrett, more known for his reptilian gyrations as the front man for rock band Midnight Oil than sound policy, was urging a change of emphasis.  The IWC had to move from mere regulation to solid, enlightened conservation of cetacean species.

In truth, that direction has been taken by the body for some time now, even if some members have been less than enthusiastic to admit it.  The five-year moratorium of 1986 has been extended, and still applies.  Some countries on the commission, headed by Brazil, have raised the issue of a Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, an arrangement that did not get sufficient numbers last year.

The scientific provisions of the IWC, considered by some to be ludicrous if not meaningless, have at least seen a reduction of whaling by Japan. About half as many whales are slaughtered each year than was the case before the moratorium of 1986 on commercial whaling.  This was threatened in 2005, when the Japanese made it clear that they were commencing a new phase of the whale for science program, otherwise known as the Japanese Whale Research Program in Antarctica (JARPA). JARPA-2 would lead to the slaughter of 935 minkes, 50 fin whales and 50 humpbacks from the seas around Antarctica.

This spike in numbers then caused concern at the IWC meeting in Ulsan, South Korea that year.  The first JARPA programme had an annual catch of 440 minke whales.  The revised number came unnervingly close to the annual commercial quotas in place for Antarctic minke whales prior to the moratorium.  Scientific advisors were angered – the Japanese had failed to await the results of a close examination of the first JARPA program before proceeding with the second.  A resolution, proposed by Australia, suggested that Japan either withdraw its policy or adopt non-lethal methods in attaining scientific data from whales.  It just passed – 30 votes to 27.  An indignant Japan had no desire heeding the vote.

The Japanese continued to insist at Santiago that their science is not the stuff of fantasy, a contrivance designed to back commerce over preservation.  The Institute of Cetacean Research, established in 1987 to counter the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, has done more than anything else to bolster an obsolete, or at the very least, questionable science.

Figures are produced from time to time suggesting sustainable, if not growing numbers in whale stocks.   In the politics of whaling, numbers are relative: the IWC Scientific Committee felt that minke whale numbers in the Antarctic had probably decreased to 300,000 by 2000 or 2001.  Contra, the Japanese: the number was closer to 760,000. We are left more baffled than ever.

The Japanese have not been entirely inflexible, though they will not yield to a complete abolition of all forms of whaling.  Indeed, their opposition to the anti-whaling groups is couched in the language of a beleaguered state.  Japanese negotiators are ever wary of ‘cultural imperialism’ jammed through the backdoor of environmental politics – after all, said one advisor to the Japan Whaling Association, Shigeko Misaki in March 2003, the issue was not whether whaling should take place at all, but how it should take place. For Misaki, organizations in the US happily conceded to the slaughter of the bowhead while furiously defending the hapless minke.

The Japanese breathed a sigh of relief when Congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA) became Chairman of the U.S. House Resources Committee.  Now that was someone who would understand the ‘sustainable use of marine resources’.

The Japanese have, through skill and money, manufactured a consensus among various developing nations, who make the argument that human rights is at stake.  It is certainly as much to do with a battle of lifestyles, a matter, say of whether aboriginal subsistence hunts should be allowed to prosper.  Others are less charitable.  ‘This has more to do with sushi than science,’ suggested Darren Kindleysides, campaign manager of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in January this year.  Money, not knowledge, talks in the forum of the IWC.  The science on that score is secondary, even if much of a case can be made.

The position of such anti-whaling countries as Australia is not particularly glorious either.  What can’t be attained through diplomacy can be done through the courts – the International Court of Justice could have been the scene of an Australian application against Japan, notably on whaling beyond its allowed totals.  But the new Rudd government in Canberra shuddered at the prospect of taking on an otherwise close ally in the courts.  Prior to that, the Labor opposition had been more than content to blow the bugle for a legal redress.

In March this year, there were murmurings that Tokyo might be happy to concede to whaling within their own waters.  Otherwise the Japanese may find themselves leaving the IWC with the puff and indignation of their League of Nation predecessors in 1932.  And the IWC, they promise, will be undermined in much the same way, becoming a toothless league without effective sanction.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.  He can be reached at








Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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