IWC: stop whaling in-fighting, start protecting whales

Material for the International Whaling Commission’s next meeting, published on its website, answers some domestic questions and shifts the IWC focus from whaling to whales


Everyone will be grumpy, even if the package succeeds which is most definitely not assured.” — Sir Geoffrey Palmer [1]

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) reconvenes in June, in Agadir. Preliminary talks start on Sunday. The main business on this annual meeting’s agenda will be the IWC itself: the deadline expires on diplomacy on the future of the IWC.

Meeting material, published on the IWC website, includes the proposed “consensus decision to improve the conservation of whales”. This helps piece together earlier scraps, and shines a better light on the truth of claim and counter-claim that New Zealand has altered its anti-whaling policy position.

The proposal is a compromise text, written by the IWC chair and vice-chair, after a 12-country ‘support group’ to the small working group on the future of the IWC could not agree. They got close, but got stuck on the numbers. The proposal has been dismissed by our Minister Murray McCully, as indeed its authors predicted.

It says what has been asserted many times before: that the IWC status quo isn’t durable, and isn’t helping whales. Differences of opinion on whales and whaling policy have crowded out the time and other resources of the IWC, at the expense of proper conservation.

Because the IWC is voluntary, non-binding except insofar as its members agree to be bound, there are very real risks that whaling nations might leave, and establish their own ‘butchers’ club’. Moderately anti-whaling members, too, are fed up with the expensive, ineffectual, unpleasant business; should they leave, it would alter the balance of pro- and anti-whaling membership, which has been on a knife edge for some time.

Some tout the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as the remedy, and it may come to that yet, if these talks fail. Nothing about having participated in them rules out that option. Australia is simultaneously a participant in the talks, and a noisy prospective litigant.

On the other hand, if the talks succeed in their goal of building a consensus outcome, it would seem a bit rude and unfaithful to the spirit of the thing, to sign up to a contract, and then sue about it. Any country committing itself to these flawed talks had, therefore, better be quite convinced that the ICJ route is even more flawed.

Last night I went to learn more about the ICJ. That can wait for another day. But there are some self-evident problems with it, and to date, I have not heard any advocate tackle them. For example, the diplomacy attempts a comprehensive solution. By contrast, a legal response will only ever be patchily enforced, if and when the whaling is illegal, and Japan would have to consent to its enforcement.

The proposed “consensus decision” opens with a new IWC vision statement, about working co-operatively to improve whale conservation and management. The proposal is a sort of constitution for the next decade or so, the so-called 10-year interim period, in which the IWC will keep trying to rebuild its future. It is a step on the path of “this Mount Difficulty,” as Palmer described it in the same speech quoted above, not the final destination — but a step that he says is vital to save the IWC from falling back into its “slough of despond”.

The feat the proposal attempts is to be no worse off in the interim and, in many respects, substantially better off. There is much good in it, in terms of New Zealand’s objectives. I would go so far as to speculate that it does achieve all that Labour could have hoped, when they signed up to these talks. One might imagine their dearest, secret wish was that, with Sir Geoffrey among the leaders of the charge, all would be won over to New Zealand’s policy for the absolute protection of whales. But, as ever, the reality has proved rather more difficult.

Labour wanted to defend the moratorium on commercial whaling, and end special permit ‘scientific’ whaling or bring it under control. Under the proposal, the commercial moratorium remains in place. (As an aside, I note that Chris Carter’s “I oppose all moves to restart commercial whaling” petition is now closed.)

Even bringing thinly-disguised commercial whaling ventures under the auspices of the IWC, as this package does, doesn’t make it a pro-whaling package. Here’s why, in my view: you have to look at the substance of the thing, past the word ‘whaling’ and some sad dead whales.

Establishing and maintaining a whaling fleet must cost quite a lot. Expert economic advice commissioned by the WWF says whaling is uneconomic presently, heavily government-subsidised. If the take is capped at low enough numbers, lower than the present take, that will cap the commercial return; at some point, if there is a trajectory down in the numbers, it won’t be viable. That is how, I think, one can say this is indeed a proposal to phase out commercial whaling, not restart it.

Nor can anyone new enter the market: whaling would be limited under the proposal to those countries who currently take whales, and to species currently taken.

It suspends unilaterally-determined whaling under special permit or reservation, therefore, all whaling would be brought under IWC control, by contrast to the present position, where Japan, Norway and Iceland sail their whaling ships through large and expanding Convention loopholes.

Whale watching and environmental concerns are recognised as proper IWC interests. There are many no less pressing threats to whales than whaling: ship strike, marine pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, climate change.

All of this fits New Zealand’s objectives. The residual objections are about the proposed whale take from the Southern Ocean Sanctuary (New Zealand is committed to elimination of Southern Ocean whaling, and the projections show no path to that); and the numbers and species of whales that may be taken (it allows a fin whale take, an endangered species).

The proposal is supplied as the basis for further discussions; it is not agreed. The whole process has proceeded on the basis that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, so countries can talk without prejudice.

It expressly says no governments will have altered their positions on matters of principle, or prejudiced future rights, by negotiating or signing up to this interim solution. The talks will rumble on for another decade if this phase succeeds, so this is not just semantics. It locks in whatever policy wins we can get now, whilst continuing to fight for others. I have never known the Greens to oppose such an approach before.

These have been tortuous high-stakes negotiations. People said that the Copenhagen climate change negotiations, too, were ‘too big to fail’. But what I will say is: with something so positive, if imperfect, so nearly within grasp, after so long, only a fool would just trample on it. In the words of the chair and vice-chair (my emphasis):

Evaluation also depends on whether one, for example, examines the Consensus Decision against one’s own strongly-held long-term principles or against the status quo. It is our view that the proposed Consensus Decision, provided that it can be adopted by consensus, represents a major step forward for whale conservation and management, and thus for the International Whaling Commission.

What the proposal does, in essence, is to shift the IWC on its axis, from in-fighting about whaling, to conservation and management of whales. It does that with no loss, in real terms, to whales, and many gains for them. It gives nothing new to commercial interests; it could, if the numbers can be agreed, fairly firmly lodge a harpoon in them. Whale lovers should weep if this fails.

[1] From Palmer’s address to the IWC Small Working Group as its Support Group chair, reproduced in the Report of the Fourth Meeting of the Small Working Group on the Future of the IWC (Florida, 2-4 March 2010).