The International Whaling Commission is staring extinction in the face. Sir Geoffrey Palmer talks about its struggle to save itself, let alone the whales.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) meets in Portugal next month, in the throes of delicate and difficult negotiations, which might be a metaphor. It has to save itself, before it can save the whales.

To understand why, you need a bit of history.

The IWC has, in recent memory, been the body responsible for overseeing the moratorium on commercial whaling, and the establishment of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary: a conservation-minded, anti-whaling body. Its founding document, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling 1946, is conservation-minded, but pro-whaling. Its purpose is “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”. It refers to the “optimum utilisation of the whale resources”, and one of the mandatory considerations in setting IWC regulations is “the interests of the consumers of whale products”.

Conservation of whales was initially a means to an end, and the IWC “a butchers’ club”: countries whose only interest in sustaining whale populations was so they could hunt them.

From the 1970s, when the risk of whale extinction began to be recognised, some previous whalers (eg. the United States) revised their stance, and anti-whaling nations began to join the IWC. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other green and anti-whaling lobby groups began a recruitment drive towards the three-quarters majority required for the moratorium.

The Japanese reversed the tactic: recruiting (or—pejoratively—buying or otherwise coercing) pro-whaling membership and votes. The strategy was neither new nor confined to the pro-whaling lobby: over the years, WWF had promised China $1 million to fund a panda reserve; the United States applied diplomatic pressure via its “Pelly Amendment” (which allows trade sanctions for over-fishing, including the “fishing” of whales); and IWC reimbursement was available from conservation groups for anti-whalers.

Now the IWC is riven: two blocs, pro- and anti-whaling, split right down the middle. In St Kitts and Nevis three years ago, the Japanese won by one vote the right to require the IWC to reconsider its stance. Hence the negotiations: should the IWC be “normalised” - required to give effect to its founding document - or “modernised”?

It was, back-handedly, a positive development. For decades previously, the IWC had been dead in the water, preoccupied with mutual recriminations and vituperative debates about whether whales may be hunted or not. Meanwhile, other equally serious human-induced threats to whale viability, such as climate change and ship strike, lay low on the agenda.

No matter how much one deplores whaling, it is impossible not to acknowledge the logic of the Japanese and their IWC allies. They’re offended: perennially and (in one view) quite wrongly cast as the bad guys. The global moratorium persists in the face of undisputed scientific evidence that some whale populations could be “harvested” without threat to their viability. The stance of anti-whaling nations, New Zealand in the vanguard, is derided as emotional and political, unsupported by the Convention’s clear terms.

Everything is at stake. The IWC governs solely by consensus and moral authority. Only member countries are bound by it; if Japan and others leave, they become ungovernable. Under IWC regulations, if a member country lodges a formal objection to an IWC decision, it is not bound. Norway lodged an objection to the moratorium, and continues commercial whaling. There is no enforcement mechanism for non-compliant members: Japan carries out self-issued “special permit” whaling for “scientific research”, a thin cover for commercial purposes; Iceland whales commercially on a legally-disputed reservation.

If the IWC ceases to exist, or cannot take whaling nations with it, whales are doomed.

The principal issue on next month’s agenda is whether negotiations—about to expire—should be extended. The 18 May Report of the Small Working Group on the Future of the IWC sets out the progress achieved to date: a new habit of polite dialogue, and a process for tackling the 33 issues identified by IWC members as important. Its subtext: zero substantive progress. According to Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand’s representative on the IWC, after months of intense diplomatic effort it’s far from clear any solution can be found.

I put it to him that New Zealand is trying to defend the legally indefensible—hypocritically accusing the Japanese of intractability, blaming them for inability to reach consensus when fault can be found on both sides. Given what’s at stake, mightn’t the cautious sanction of some whaling, where sustainable, pour some oil (pardon the pun) and smooth the way long term?

Yes, he agreed, New Zealand’s position is indefensible on sustainability grounds for some types of whales. But:

1. We—New Zealanders—like whales.

2. Whaling’s inhumane: they take a very long time to die.

3. IWC targets like “optimum utilisation of the whale resources” can equally be directed to ventures like whale watching—far more lucrative and sustainable, and utterly inconsistent with Japan’s desire to hunt them, particularly in our waters.

4. Any sanctioned resumption of commercial whaling—including one option under discussion, Japanese “small-type” coastal whaling of the little minkes (“cockroaches of the sea”)—might be the first step on a different road to disaster.

5. It’s a volatile time in whaling circles— a greener globally co-operative Obama administration, forthcoming Japanese elections, Iceland poised to join the anti-whaling European Union. This is not the time to consider backing down.

6. If Japan makes good its threat to leave the IWC, some other legal options (like the Law of the Sea, which Japan has ratified: see Part V, article 65) might be tried.

I asked Sir Geoffrey what he thought would happen. Nobody knows, he said. It’s a craps game—a gamble. The stakes, for New Zealand and the whales: killing the fewest whales.

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