Under normal circumstances, the breakdown of an international meeting would be a cause for disappointment; but not in the case of the International Whaling Commission. After two days of discussions in Morocco, the gathering has been brought to an end because the delegates of 88 nations were unable to reach agreement. The draft deal under discussion would have lifted the 24-year-old ban on commercial whaling. Iceland, Japan and Norway would have been granted an annual catch quota.
Despite the safeguards that were being proposed to accompany a relaxation of the ban – a DNA register for whale meat to prevent illegal hunting, the scope for tightening hunt quotas based on scientific evidence of whale stocks – this would have been a deeply regressive step. It is true that the present IWC ban is often breached already. Japan, Iceland and Norway kill some 1,500 whales a year, either in outright defiance of the ban, or under the spurious excuse of scientific research. And the IWC has no enforcement powers to punish nations which defy its rulings. But the international stigma around commercial whaling does suppress the overall level of whaling. And it is no idle fear that sanctioning commercial whaling would result in demands from other countries to be given their own quotas. South Korea, for instance, has already signalled that it would be interested.
The conservation gains of the deal – getting Japan to curb its whaling activities in the Southern Ocean and imposing quotas on Iceland and Norway that are smaller than the present kill rates – would be outweighed by the pain. The 1986 moratorium was responsible for reducing the number of whales killed every year by tens of thousands. It allowed species such as the blue, the humpback and the right whale to pull back from brink of extinction.
To relax the ban would be to risk unravelling that historic progress. It would reframe the IWC firmly as a resource management, rather than a conservation organisation.
A year-long "cooling-off" period is likely before the IWC meets again. But the pressure for a relaxation of the whaling ban will most likely continue. Japan, for one, has invested too much in breaking the moratorium (including shamelessly buying the support of small countries with aid) to give up now. So we must hope that when delegates gather for the next IWC meeting, the talks prove equally unsuccessful.