The International Whaling Commission meeting this week in Sorrento, Italy, could see pro-whaling countries - Japan, Norway, and Iceland - having a majority of countries on their side. That would be an extremely worrying development for whales and other large sea animals known as cetaceans. And the worst of it is that the rest of the world doesn't seem to care.
What would be the consequences of a pro-whaling majority? The good news would be that the current moratorium on commercial whaling would stay in place. A three-quarter majority is needed to overturn the ban, and indications are that the balance has only slightly tipped in favor of whaling.
But even a simple pro-whaling majority would still be dangerous. For example, instead of being condemned for their so-called "scientific" whaling, Japan and Iceland would likely see a resolution that actually endorses the practice. This would be a disaster.
Despite the moratorium on commercial whaling, loopholes have allowed over 25,000 whales to be killed by Japan, Norway and Iceland since 1986. Of these, close to 8,000 - including endangered sei whales - were killed by Japan for "scientific" whaling, with the meat finding its way into the market. It is no secret that Japan would like to kill more whales, and a favorable resolution would effectively give Tokyo carte blanche to do so. So even with the moratorium in place, commercial whaling could dramatically expand.
A simple majority could also overturn last year's landmark resolution, the Berlin Initiative. The Conservation Committee established under this initiative enables member countries to tackle the full range of threats to all cetaceans beyond commercial whaling. These include marine pollution, climate change, noise pollution, ship strikes, and the biggest threat of all, bycatch - entanglement in fishing nets, which kills around 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises each year.
Predictably, Japan, Norway and Iceland led the opposition to the creation of a Conservation Committee. With a simple majority, they could have it disbanded. That could set cetacean conservation back more than a decade.
While these direct consequences would be bad for whales and cetaceans, what's is perhaps worse is that a pro-whaling bloc has been able to gain ground so easily.
The "Save the Whales" campaign of the 1970s and 1980s mobilized governments and the public to stop commercial whaling. Since then, the International Whaling Commission has made a number of positive moves towards cetacean conservation. But this conservation-led approach has been eroded by two factors. One is a lack of interest by many countries which either are not commission members or have not paid their dues and so cannot vote - including Canada, Greece, Luxembourg and the new EU member states. The second is Japan's open, and admitted, use of aid money to bring countries into the commission that will vote with it.
As a result, the commission has been in a deadlock for many years, with members split almost evenly between pro- and anti-cetacean conservation. This has prevented the commission from moving forward on a number of conservation initiatives, including new whale sanctuaries in the South Atlantic and South Pacific. Critically, it's also eroding international confidence in the commision's effectiveness.
The situation could have been avoided if more countries took an active interest.
The EU has an anti-whaling and pro-conservation policy. So why aren't all EU member states also members of the commission? Canada prides itself on its wilderness and conservation policy, and has a thriving whale watching industry. So why isn't it a member? What about the other 100 or so countries that are members of the Convention on Biological Diversity, but not the International Whaling Commission?
And why are countries like Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, Mongolia, Gabon, Benin, Grenada and Tuvalu - to name a few - so ignored by the international community that they need to bargain away the future of cetaceans for aid money from Japan? Few animals inspire such awe as whales, dolphins and porpoises, yet relatively few other animals have suffered so severely at human hands. These animals are part of the world's shared assets - and as such, the shared responsibility of all humanity.
But at a time when threats to their survival are increasing, the world seems to have turned away from their plight. The global community must step forward, and not leave the future of the world's cetaceans to a small whaling lobby led by just three countries.
Susan Lieberman is director of the World Wildlife Fund's global species program.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune