Anti-whaling nations push to establish Antarctic sanctuary

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The Independent Online
ENVIRONMENTALISTS aim to persuade this year's meeting of the International Whaling Commission to create a vast sanctuary for whales. If the proposal secures the necessary three-quarters majority whaling will be forbidden south of the 40th parallel. Yet the Japanese will, quite legally, carry on killing 300 minke whales a year within this Antarctic haven, ostensibly for scientific research.

The 30 nations attending the commission meeting, which opened at Puerto Vallarta in Mexico yesterday, are also expected to agree on a procedure for deciding how many whales can be slaughtered without any threat to the overall populations. But most members of the commission have no intention of allowing this Revised Management Procedure ever to be used to kill whales.

For nothing is quite as it seems in the world of whale diplomacy. Meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have become exercises in obfuscation.

Most IWC member nations have been anti-whaling for 20 years now. They have used the terms of the founding treaty and the commission's procedures not to regulate whaling but to curb it gradually, finally introducing an indefinite moratorium in 1982.

Yet Japan and Norway have found ways of carrying on killing several hundred minke whales a year without breaching the treaty. Japan hides behind 'science'. Norway says its commercial whaling of minkes is legal because it lodged a formal objection to the moratorium in 1982. There are about 80,000 minkes in the Atlantic and hundreds of thousands in the seas around Antarctica.

The last thing the majority wants is for Norway and Japan to storm out of the commission. Governments have bigger fish to fry. Japan, for instance, would hate the squabble to jeopardise its prospects of gaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. 'We're in a much bigger game than whaling,' said an IWC insider. For all of these reasons, nothing much happens at most IWC meetings despite the lobbying and denunciation by green groups. This year could, however, prove to be an exception.

First, there is a feeling among many anti-whaling nations that the Revised Management Procedure will now have to be adopted if Japan and Norway are to be kept within the IWC fold.

The commission's scientists have spent years refining the procedure. It is the most sophisticated method devised for determining how to exploit the population of a wild animal without endangering it. Yet even if this quota-setting procedure is adopted, the anti- whalers have other plans to stop a widespread resumption of commercial whaling. They hope to argue for years about other matters. Is the harpoon grenade sufficiently humane? Can an inspection system be devised that ensures nobody cheats?

The proposal for a sanctuary, first put forward by the French two years ago, is likely to go to a vote. This time anti-whalers think they can secure the majority needed, although yesterday the outcome of the vote balanced on a knife-edge. The sanctuary would embrace more than 80 per cent of the world's great whales. It would be a largely symbolic gesture, further marginalising the Japanese but not outlawing their 'scientific' whaling.

The environmental groups lobbying national delegations at Puerto Vallarta are split. Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature say that for the sake of the IWC's credibility and continued existence there can no longer be procrastination over the Revised Management Procedure. But some rival organisations, including the RSPCA, portray this as a sell-out.

(Map omitted)

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