Balance of power swings back to the whalers

As the pro-hunting faction at the International Whaling Commission grows in strength, quibbling among conservationists puts whales in more danger than ever
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Whales are currently in greater danger than at any time in the past two decades – and their best friends are largely to blame.

For the intransigence of environmental groups and conservationist nations, including Britain, is increasingly undermining the credibility of the agreement that controls world whaling. Partly as a result, Japan and other pro-whaling nations – once a tiny minority – are steadily gaining ground.

Last week the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body that regulates the hunt, met in the unlikely surroundings of the Champagne Suite at Hammersmith's Novotel Hotel. But the environmentalists who so joyfully cracked open the bubbly when the IWC agreed an international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982 were in no mood for celebration.

The three-quarters majority of the members that they had secured to force through the ban has been so eroded that the pro- and anti-whaling factions are now evenly matched. Last week saw them locked in stalemate, but it is the whalers who are steadily increasing their support.

"This meeting has been bad for whale conservation," said Cassandra Phillips, WWF's expert on whales, as it ended on Friday. She added that unless conservationist countries "get their act together" soon, "they will be putting the future of the world's whales back in the hands of the whalers".

And the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) warned: "The international ban on whale hunting could begin to unravel as soon as next year."

Achieving the moratorium – which came into effect in 1986 – was the conservationists' first great victory on the international stage. They had made the destruction of species after species of whale the first great symbol of the overexploitation of the Earth's resources, as their populations crashed under the impact of unscrupulous over-hunting.

They persuaded country after country which had never taken an interest in whaling to join the IWC specifically to vote for the moratorium, until they reached the 75 per cent majority needed to get change under the IWC's treaty. But now the pattern has been reversed, as Japan has been buying votes with aid, as its government admitted for the first time this month.

Conservationists fear that Japan will have secured 10 more votes by the time of next year's meeting in Shimoneseki, not far from Hiroshima. This would give it the moral authority that comes from a simple majority, even though it would not have the numbers to push through fundamental change.

But – bribery aside – they must carry much of the blame, thanks to the way they have used their blocking power on the IWC in recent years.

The moratorium was never meant to be an all-time ban. Instead it was intended to be a pause, while a new way of controlling whaling was devised to replace the discredited system that had condoned gross overexploitation for decades.

The new system – which would have allowed small catches of common species – was ready in 1993. But hard-line conservationist nations and groups have blocked its adoption ever since.

In this they have a strange identity of interest with the whaling nations, Japan and Norway – who would have to kill fewer whales if they observed the new rules, rather than exploiting loopholes in the treaty, as at present. But they have achieved what once seemed impossible, yielding the moral high ground to the whalers.

The more they block progress, the more the IWC and the moratorium will be discredited. This could lead, as early as next year, to another body – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna – lifting the ban on trade in whale meat that it imposed at the same time as the moratorium.

This would allow countries outside the IWC – Iceland, for example – or those that have already legally exempted themselves from the moratorium – including Norway and Russia – to begin uncontrolled whaling and sell the meat to the very hungry Japanese market.

Then the conservationists could forget the champagne for good. They would be stuck instead with whaling – and gnashing of teeth.