BUENOS AIRES - The United States has taken over the pro-whaling stance traditionally championed by Japan, but instead of supporting the capture of whales for scientific research purposes, it is doing so under the guise of aboriginal subsistence quotas.
This is one of the conclusions reached by Latin American conservationist organizations as they prepare for the upcoming annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), to be held Jul. 3-5 on the Channel Island of Jersey.
Established in 1946 to regulate the hunting and trade of whales, the IWC is made up of 89 countries. While some of them are in favor of commercial whaling, others maintain a conservationist stance, including the Latin American bloc of members.
José Truda Palazzo, former Brazilian commissioner to the IWC and now the coordinator of the Southern Right Whale Project at the Cetacean Conservation Center of Brazil, told Tierramérica that the latest threat is not posed by Japan but rather by the United States.
"There is considerable unease throughout the region because the U.S. delegation, which is aggressive and unwilling to negotiate, is going to try to retable an initiative in Jersey that would legitimize whaling," he said.
There is a long history behind this stance. In the face of radical declines in the populations of many whale species and the danger of extinction, the IWC declared an international moratorium on commercial whaling that entered into force in 1986. Since then, Japan has used a loophole in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that allows for the capture of whales for scientific research purposes in order to continue whaling.
Environmental organizations estimate that Japan captures around 400 whales a year, which is far more than would be necessary for conducting research, and even hunts in so-called "sanctuaries" or specially protected areas.
The United States was long viewed as a world leader in whale conservation, but defended the allocation of a quota for subsistence whaling by aboriginal peoples in the northwestern state of Alaska. In 2002, Japan used its majority of votes in the CBI to block this quota.
Following that defeat, considered by environmentalists as a Japanese reprisal against U.S. conservationist leadership, the United States remained neutral. But for the last three years, its delegates have become even more pro-whaling than Japan.
At the last IWC annual meeting, held in 2010 in Agadir, Morocco, the United States sought the adoption of a programme of reforms that maintained the moratorium in general but proposed quotas for whaling and legitimized Japan’s captures.
This proposal was rejected, among other reasons, because of the strong opposition of Latin American countries along with others like Australia.
In Jersey, the U.S. delegation, with the support of New Zealand, will attempt to push through its proposal once again.
"It is truly unfortunate, because (the United States) has a long tradition of conservationism and defense of non-lethal use, and now the U.S. delegation is pro-whaling," commented Truda Palazzo.
He believes that the change in stance is due to the fact that "in the northern state of Alaska traditional communities have enormous political power and they send their delegates to the IWC meetings, but they are not authentic Eskimos who go out in boats made of animal hides and hunt with harpoons," he said.
"They have technology and government subsidies and they don’t hunt out of a need for survival," he added. In his opinion, this is a domestic political issue in the United States for which the rest of the members of the IWC are "taken hostage."
The Buenos Aires Group, as the Latin American bloc in the IWC is known, has announced that it will continue to oppose this initiative. The group is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Uruguay.
Roxana Schteinbarg of the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina agreed that the greatest cause for concern is no longer Japan but rather the United States.
"In 2012, aboriginal whaling quotas will be up for negotiation once again, and it is possible that the United States has made a bilateral deal with Japan to support it now in order to get its backing for those quotas next year," Schteinbarg told Tierramérica.
But the United States is not alone in defending aboriginal subsistence quotas for Alaska. These quotas are also supported by Denmark, on behalf of Greenland, as well as Russia and even the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. "We agree that subsistence whaling should be allowed, but we don’t believe this to be the case in most of these countries," Schteinbarg added.
In countries that defend an aboriginal subsistence quota, she said, explosives are used to capture the whales, and whale meat is sold in supermarkets in Greenland, for example, which clearly demonstrates that this is in fact a case of commercial whaling. Given this state of affairs, it is fortunate that the Buenos Aires Group has continued to work towards a common strategy that "could make all the difference" in negotiations, said Schteinbarg.
In Latin America, whale watching has become a popular tourism activity that has consistently grown over the last 40 years.
There are now 18 countries in the region that promote the activity, according to "The State of Whale Watching in Latin America", a report published in 2008 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Global Ocean and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
The Latin American delegates at the meeting in Jersey will propose changes to the IWC regulations to foster greater civil society participation, and will once again table a proposal for the creation of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, an initiative that has still not gained a consensus.
Elsa Cabrera, executive director of the Cetacean Conservation Center of Chile, told Tierramérica that in order to expand public participation and gain greater support for these initiatives before the meeting in Jersey, on online petition campaign has been launched at http://www.cerocazadeballenas.cl/.
This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialized news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Program, United Nations Environment Program and the World Bank.