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Return to Commercial Whaling Could be Determined by Tiny Pacific island

by John Vidal and David Adam

One of the world's smallest states could determine whether commercial whaling is legitimised after a 25 year ban. The Pacific island of Palau, which only achieved nationhood in 1992 and has a population of just 20,000, has said it intends to switch sides and join other anti-whaling countries at a crucial meeting next week.

People look at a large fin whale at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, when it broke a global moratorium on commercial whaling, killing the endangered fin whale for the first time since the 1980s. (Photograph: AP) The proposal to resume commercial whaling will be voted on in the next few days by the 88 countries who are members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). If passed by a 75% majority, a new system of whaling quotas set by the IWC could be in place within months.

The proposal would allow commercial whaling of fin and other endangered whales in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary, a vast area around Antarctica which is the primary feeding ground for many whale species. The sanctuary was set up by the IWC but Japanese whalers catch more than 1,000 whales there each year under the guise of scientific research.

The IWC meeting in Agadir, Morocco, is said to be finely balanced with pro- and anti-whaling nations lobbying strongly to persuade non-committed countries to back them.

But it is understood that the European Union, which has been split by Denmark and Sweden choosing to back the whaling nation of Norway, was close to reaching a common position. "It's high stakes stuff. It could be very close indeed. We are quietly hopeful that we will get a united EU position," said a source close to the talks.

The IWC argues that it can bridge the gap between countries that support and oppose whaling with its so-called "peace plan". Iceland and Norway whale commercially, setting their own quotas outside the IWC, while Japan exploits an IWC loophole to catch whales under an exemption for scientific whaling.

Under the IWC plan, countries would have to agree to catch limits set by the IWC and based on scientific advice. It is not clear yet whether the proposal would allow more or fewer whales to be hunted overall.

Christian Macquieira, chair of the IWC, said: "The proposal was developed because most members of the IWC, whatever their views on whaling, recognised that the IWC was not doing a good enough job on whale conservation and the management of whaling."

He added: "It had to be a compromise proposal, and that inevitably means that no one gets everything they want. Given the criticism we have received from all sides, we are probably not far off the correct balance."

As in other years, the IWC meeting has been rocked by allegations that Japan has used aid money to "buy" votes from small island Pacific and Caribbean states. This is strongly denied but Japanese aid is a known to be a significant source of income for many small countries.

Palau's President Johnson Toribiong says he was unconvinced by Japan's arguments. "They claimed that humans consume 100 million tonnes of fish a year, [and] the whales consume three to five times more, and that in order to ensure that the fish stocks are not depleted, controlled hunting of whales should be allowed," he said.

Today, Germany raised the stakes by telling Iceland that in order to be granted EU membership, it must stop whaling. The stipulation was included in a memo officially presented by a representative of the German ambassador to Icelands.

Environmnent groups have urged countries to vote against the IWC proposal. "If there is one place on earth where whales should have full protection it is the Southern Ocean," said Heather Sohl, species policy officer for WWF. "Some whales feed exclusively in the Southern Ocean, not eating at all during the winter months when they travel up to tropical waters. Allowing commercial whaling in an area where whales are so vulnerable goes against all logic."

The proposal would allow the commercial killing of 65 fin whales in the Southern Ocean and 500 Sei whales in the North Pacific over the 10-year period. Both fin and sei whale species were depleted to severely low levels by previous whaling.

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