For several years, the 84-nation intergovernmental commission has been working on a detailed scientific procedure known as the Revised Management Procedure to ensure all catch limits for any future commercial whaling would be within sustainable limits calculated using tested scientific procedures.
On Wednesday, after an intersessional meeting in Rome attended by about half the member countries, the commission agreed to sidestep this scientific process and authorize a Small Working Group of member countries to continue developing a package of proposals for a resumption of commercial whaling, relying on ad-hoc catch limits set for five years at a time, without regard to long-term sustainability.
The proposed deal would grant Japan permission to hunt minke whales in its coastal waters in exchange for a scaling back of its so-called research whaling in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary near Antarctica.
A Bryde's whale lies on the deck of a Japanese whaling vessel. The species is listed as "Data Deficient" on the IUCN Red List and current population numbers are not known. (Photo courtesy Institute for Cetacean Research)
In the past five years, the Japanese fleet has harpooned nearly 5,000 fin, sei, sperm, minke and Bryde's whales in the Antarctic and the North Pacific under self-assigned quotas for what the Japanese call "scientific" purposes.
The IWC's Scientific Committee, in a review of the Japanese program, concluded in 2007 that the scientific questions that the Japanese supposedly set out to answer, such as the natural mortality rate of whales, remain unresolved despite the killing of thousands of whales. The IWC has repeatedly called for Japan to end its lethal "research" program.
International Whaling Commission Chairman William Hogarth of the United States is leading this new IWC direction in an effort to resolve the bitter and long-standing dispute between the whaling nations Japan, Norway and Iceland and the whale conservation countries, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile and many others.
"These have been helpful discussions, said Hogarth as the meeting closed. "There were clear expressions of view that efforts to arrive at a package of proposals must continue. Opinions differ amongst the members as to precisely how to accomplish our goal and a great deal of work remains to be done."
The final report of the Small Working Group will be available by May 18. The aim is that this deal would be approved by the full IWC at its annual meeting on the Portuguese island of Madeira in June.
Anti-whaling groups have united against the plan. Twenty-six conservation organizations from around the world have issued a call to governments asking them to oppose the deal. They say it could end the moratorium on commercial whaling that has been in place since 1986 to allow the great whales to recover after centuries of unregulated whaling had brought many species close to extinction.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals has led the production of a briefing, signed by the world's leading anti-whaling organizations condemning the proposal, which the conservationists say "effectively barters with animals' lives."
In Rome, Patrick Ramage, global whale porogram director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said, "Science has been thrown to the whalers like Christians to the lions in ancient Rome."
"Conservation-minded IWC members hope that by offering Japan interim, ad hoc, catch allowances for coastal whaling, that will encourage Japan, in turn, to exercise self-restraint in its 'scientific whaling' operations, said Ramage. "However, conservationists are extremely sceptical that this olive branch will elicit the hoped for response."
"The message from the commission today was forget science, forget sustainability, compromise full steam ahead! The Commission is ignoring ongoing whaling by Iceland and Norway and also their recent resumption of the international trade in whale meat," said Ramage.
William Hogarth chairs the IWC (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which sends ships to interfere with Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean, condemns what it calls "this proposal of appeasement" and calls upon President Barack Obama to remove Hogarth as the U.S. commissioner to the IWC.
"The United States has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists and they should not be negotiating with poachers," said Sea Shepherd founder and president Captain Paul Watson. "The Japanese whaling industry is a criminal organization that targets endangered whales in an established international whale sanctuary."
"Hogarth's proposal is so milquetoast and weak it does not even demand an end to Southern Ocean whaling and allows this criminal activity to continue," Watson said. "The United States will be betraying the whales and marine conservationists if they allow Hogarth to advance this shameful proposal of appeasement."
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is requesting an investigation of Hogarth by the U.S. Justice Department "to see if there are other unknown factors motivating Mr. Hogarth to sell out the whales to the outlaw whalers of Japan," said Watson.
Watson is not alone in calling for Hogarth's removal.
In February, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, sent a letter to the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, calling for Hogarth's replacement "amid growing criticisms that holdover political appointees of the Bush administration are proposing to dismantle the current worldwide ban on commercial whaling."
In June 2008, the House of Representatives approved a resolution introduced by Rahall urging U.S. leadership to use all appropriate measures to end commercial whaling around the globe.
The Obama administration has taken a position in favor of continuing the IWC's whaling moratorium.
White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley said March 6, "The United States continues to view the commercial whaling moratorium as a necessary conservation measure and believes that lethal scientific whaling is unnecessary in modern whale conservation management. The United States also continues to have significant concerns over the recent resumption of international trade of whale meat."
Humpback whale jumps out of the sea. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace UK)
"The administration is fully committed to furthering discussions of critical issues within the IWC, including the future of the organization," Sutley said. "While we reserve judgment on various proposals until discussions are completed, it is our view that any package, to be acceptable, must result in a significant improvement in the conservation status of whales,"
"We recognize some of these issues facing the IWC may require a longer view toward resolution," she said. "However, the failure to resolve these issues is not an acceptable outcome to the United States."
At the close of the meeting in Rome, Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett said Australia's proposals for "modernizing the Commission into a genuine conservation-focused organization continue to receive strong support from around the world."
"The Commission's history of gridlock is simply not acceptable. It is taking the cause of whale conservation backwards, and in the spirit of finding a way forward, Australia will continue to listen and discuss all views, standing firm in our opposition to commercial and so-called 'scientific' whaling," Garrett said.
"Australia will only support changes within the IWC that bring us closer to our goal to eliminate whaling for good," he said.
Australia's reform agenda will be advanced on March 23, when Sydney hosts participants in the Australian Government's Southern Ocean Research Partnership planning workshop, launching the largest international whale research project in the world.
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