The International Whaling Commission has taken on a new role as a conservation body following alarming reports that as many as 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are drowning after getting entangled in fishing nets every year.
Delegates at the annual IWC (International Whaling Commission) meeting in Berlin voted this week to make whale conservation a priority for the organisation.
The decision carried by a narrow majority of 25 to 20 stirred huge controversy among IWC (International Whaling Commission) members who have been at loggerheads for years over the declining whale population.
Back in 1946 when the IWC was founded, its decision-making body consisted of just 14 member states. Whales were still plentiful and the signatory countries were looking primarily for ways to manage the catch.
By 1986 the whale population had fallen so low that the commission passed a moratorium on commercial whaling that is still in effect. The moratorium does not extend to what the commission calls "aboriginal subsistence whaling", and also allows nations to issue so-called scientific permits to hunt whales for research. Since 1998 only Japan has issued such permits.
But "times have changed since those days," Dr Susan Lieberman, head of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said in a comment after the meeting. The 'by-catch', the term used for whales and dolphins getting trapped in nets, is the single biggest threat to the survival of the 80 or so species of whales, dolphins and porpoises -- collectively known as cetaceans.
The IWC decision to extend its role from global whale management to conservation was "a historic day for cetacean conservation," she said. The IWC would now be in a position to tackle a variety of threats to cetaceans beyond commercial whaling.
Pro-whaling countries like Japan and Norway had asked for this "Berlin initiative" for a whale conservation committee to be removed from the agenda. When that failed, they lobbied member-countries to vote against the resolution.
Japanese delegates staged a walk-out after the vote was passed. Minoru Morimote, Japan's whaling commissioner, called the decision "a final blow to the already polarised IWC."
The decision means that a new IWC committee will now seek ways to protect whales. The three strongest pro-whaling countries, Japan, Norway and Iceland, announced after the vote that they would not support the new IWC initiative..
Lieberman says the Berlin initiative would deliver major conservation benefits. "This puts conservation at the heart of the IWC," she said. The pro-whaling countries should "support the will of the majority and work in a spirit of cooperation and multilateralism on the initiative."
Renate Kunast, Germany's Minister for Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, said at the meeting that the core of the debate was whether there could be such a thing as "sustainable harvesting" of whales. "The best way to approach whales is not with the harpoon but with the camera," she said.
New estimates suggest that whale watching is today a "billion dollar a year industry, and still growing," she said. Whale watching is particularly popular in Latin America, Iceland, Africa, the United States, Norway and some parts of Europe, she said. "It's a most positive form of tourism for everyone involved," said Kunast, adding that whales had fascinated her since she was a child.
Pro-whaling delegates did succeed on another front. They managed to block proposals to expand sanctuaries for whales in the South Pacific and South Atlantic. The move needed a three-quarters majority. The WWF has been campaigning since 2001 to secure a network of whale sanctuaries in the South Pacific region.
Copyright © 2003 IPS-Inter Press Service