Saving the whale: an achievement suddenly in danger

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The International Whaling Commission meets today in Sorrento under a shadow: the possibility that pro-whaling nations could control a slim majority in the commission for the first time. This would probably not be enough for them to overturn the 1986 international ban on whaling, for which a 75 per cent majority vote is necessary, but it could result in some harmful developments for the world's whale population. With a majority behind them, countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland could exclude environmental pressure groups from the meeting. They could elect a new chairman and push through pro-whaling resolutions.

The International Whaling Commission meets today in Sorrento under a shadow: the possibility that pro-whaling nations could control a slim majority in the commission for the first time. This would probably not be enough for them to overturn the 1986 international ban on whaling, for which a 75 per cent majority vote is necessary, but it could result in some harmful developments for the world's whale population. With a majority behind them, countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland could exclude environmental pressure groups from the meeting. They could elect a new chairman and push through pro-whaling resolutions.

Despite being traditionally outnumbered in the commission by anti-whaling nations such as the UK, Australia and the US, pro-whaling countries have persuaded a host of smaller nations to join their voting block. Japan has been channelling development aid to countries such as Antigua, St Vincent and the Ivory Coast in return for votes on the commission. This meeting could represent the crowning triumph of this unethical approach.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this affair is the fact that since the 1986 moratorium, pro-whaling countries have regularly flouted the commission's will anyway. A majority would simply enable them to do so more effectively. Since 1986 thousands of whales have been killed by Japanese sailors on the spurious grounds that their bodies are needed for "scientific research". The real purpose is to provide food for the Japanese market. Norwegian fishermen have mounted periodical objections to the ban and hunted while their case is under consideration. Soon pro-whaling countries may not even need such excuses.

The response from anti-whaling nations must be firm. They must do everything in their power to safeguard the 1986 ban and prevent it being eroded in practice. They must make it clear to Japan that its tactics of bribing smaller nations will not be tolerated. Finally, increased moral pressure must be brought to bear on all countries that continue to jeopardise the existence of these creatures in pursuit of the gratification of human appetites.

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