Whaling: the great betrayal

Outrage as secret deal set to sweep away international moratorium

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The moratorium on commercial whaling, one of the environmental movement's greatest achievements, looks likely to be swept away this summer by a new international deal being negotiated behind closed doors. The new arrangement would legitimise the whaling activities of the three countries which have continued to hunt whales in defiance of the ban – Japan, Norway and Iceland – and would allow commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary set up by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1994.

Conservationists regard it as catastrophic, but fear there is a very real chance of its being accepted at the next IWC meeting in Morocco in June, not least because it is being strongly supported by the US – previously one of whaling's most determined opponents.

Should the deal go ahead, it would represent one of the most significant setbacks ever for conservation, and as big a failure for wildlife protection as December's Copenhagen conference was for action on climate change.

Agreed in 1982, and introduced in 1986, the whaling moratorium was brought in after a prolonged and intense campaign by green pressure groups highlighting the fact that many populations of the great whales had been drastically reduced by over-hunting – blue whales, the largest of all, had been driven to the brink of extinction – and that whaling itself, based on the firing of explosive harpoons into large and intelligent animals, was cruel.

However, three countries carried on commercial hunting regardless: Japan, by labelling its killing "scientific research" – a fiction believed by no one – and Norway and Iceland simply by lodging formal objections to the agreement.

Between them, although there is little market for whale meat, they have since killed more than 30,000 great whales, mainly minke whales, but also Bryde's, fin, sei and sperm whales – to the anger of many conservation-minded countries, in particular a group led by the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The result has been that IWC meetings have been characterised by unending confrontation between pro- and anti-whaling factions and the proposed new deal has arisen out of a three-year attempt to bring the altercations and arguments to an end.

After a series of meetings – behind closed doors – two IWC working groups have crafted a compromise proposal which is intended to end the confrontation by "giving something to both sides".

For conservationists, it suggests there might be reduced catches by the whaling countries, observers on some whaling boats, and a DNA database to trace the origin of whalemeat. But in return, there will be official IWC "quotas" set for whales they may hunt, in all the places where they currently hunt them in defiance of the moratorium, including the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, for the first time in 25 years. The quotas are being negotiated for a final version of the proposal, which is currently in draft, due in a month's time. It will be voted on at the IWC conference in Agadir, Morocco, in June.

Despite the fact that the proposal says "the moratorium shall remain in place", meaning that it will not be specifically abolished, the new arrangements overturn it and mean commercial whaling will be legitimised.

"This deal spells disaster for whales," said Vassili Papastavrou, whale scientist for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "I can't imagine how the very countries that fought so hard for the adoption of the whaling moratorium and the establishment of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary should now even be considering legitimising commercial whaling. If this goes ahead, the IWC will abandon science and return to the dark days of the 1950s."

The fact that the proposal says the moratorium will remain was "being extremely economical with the truth", said Mark Simmonds, head of science for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. "These are weasel words," he said. "Even though the moratorium would remain in place, the reality is that it will be nullified. The proposal on the table is quite frankly disastrous. It legitimises commercial whaling once again." The British Government is unhappy with the proposed new deal. "At present we have a number of significant concerns which mean we could not support it, not least that there's no guarantee of a significant reduction in the number of whales killed in the short term," Huw Irranca-Davies, the Fisheries minister, said last night. "Nor does it provide for a phasing-out of either scientific or commercial whaling."

The proposal has some powerful backers, even among countries which were formerly solidly opposed to commercial whaling's return – a fact which substantially increases its chances of adoption at Agadir. Principal among them is the US, whose officials in the negotiations have been strongly backing the proposal. This is thought to be in part because of a specific problem – the subsistence whaling quotas for indigenous Inuit peoples in Alaska, which the US is obliged to seek from the IWC every few years.

In 2002, in return for American hostility to its "scientific" whaling, Japan blocked the quota, causing the US considerable embarrassment before the Japanese backed down. The next quota request is due in 2012 and some observers think the US wants to make sure it is on terms with Japan so the quota will not be blocked again.

Another surprise supporter of the proposal is New Zealand, although Australia is strongly opposed to the plan.

Conservation victory: bid to trade ivory fails

Bids by Tanzania and Zambia to lower protection for their elephant populations were rejected yesterday by countries meeting to discuss the global trade in threatened wildlife.

The conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Qatar turned down their request to make ivory tradable on international markets. It also refused a request from Tanzania to hold a one-off sale of legal ivory stocks.

The vote was welcomed as a "victory for common sense" by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and by conservationists, who feared the one-off sale and lower protection for elephants could prompt an increase in poaching and ivory smuggling.

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