Why did the International Whaling Commission talks break down?

Days before the end of this year’s meeting, talks of a compromise between whaling and anti-whaling nations broke down. What happened?

This past week, the International Whaling Commission met in the Moroccan resort town of Agadir with a bold agenda – seek a compromise between anti-whaling and pro-whaling nations. There has been a moratorium, often called a “ban,” on commercial whaling since 1986. But the pro-whaling countries of Japan, Iceland, and Norway have killed almost 2,000 whales each year – 30,000 whales since the mid-80’s. That’s because of   loopholes in the agreement that allowed hunting whales for “scientific research.” The compromise would have lifted the ban, but imposed strict quotas on whaling that would reduce the countries’ catch. But days before the end of the meeting, talks broke down and are being suspended for a year. So what happened?

I spoke with Scott Baker, who has been involved with the IWC for 16 years as the New Zealand delegate to the Scientific Committee. He’s now the associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at the University of Oregon. He explained that the most contentious talks at this years’ meeting took place behind closed doors, so few people know how the actual negotiation process went. But he said that it was most likely one pro-whaling country  (Japan, according to media reports) rejecting the terms offered by the mainly anti-whaling IWC, and an agreement was unlikely. Baker said that the whaling nations are already doing what they want – hunting whales with few political consequences – so there is not much for them to lose in allowing talks break down.

The problem is that the IWC has very little real power. Baker said that it can’t punish the whaling countries for pushing the boundaries of the moratorium, including what is seen as the most egregious offense – Japan’s whale hunt in an Antarctic marine sanctuary. The reason for the lack of political power, Baker said, is due to the terms under which the IWC was originally set up, back in 1946. The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling established the IWC to manage whaling – and separately, it allowed for hunting in the name of scientific research. That’s the loophole Japan is using for its hunt, although it’s been shown that a lot of this “research” ends up on restaurant tables.

So why not just renegotiate the convention to give the IWC a bit of power? “The fear is that to renegotiate the convention would make it worse,” Baker said. The pro-whaling countries are well-established, and there’s the possibility that they could sway some of the countries that are more or less indifferent about whaling to support them.

Baker was uncertain of what might happen at next year’s meeting, but he said the result of Australia’s case against Japan in the International Court of Justice could influence the talks in 2011. Australia is suing Japan to end its whale hunt in the Southern Ocean, between Australia and Antarctica, which is a major feeding ground for whales.

Lindsay Patterson