Plenty more whales in the sea

Environmentalists have got it wrong in their attempts to protect the oceans, writes Geoffrey Lean
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I HATE to spoil the party in the middle of this, the officially designated International Year of the Ocean. But governments and environmentalists seem to be going overboard in their desire to be seen to be saving the seas. Twice last week, in conferences in London and Oman, many countries seemed more intent on serving the interests of environmental pressure groups than those of the environment.

They tried to rule out any possibility of dumping oil rigs in the North Sea and rigidly insisted on upholding the world-wide ban on whaling. Both stances will win them greenie points for environmental and political correctness. But neither will do much to protect the seas or their creatures; they may even make things worse. They also divert attention from the really critical issues facing the oceans.

First the oil rigs. Greenpeace, the Conservatives and many European governments were up in arms last week over a refusal by Britain and Norway to rule out sinking any of them when their working lives are over. Greenpeace described the two countries' positions as "folly" and "dramatically at odds with international public opinion", while Tim Yeo, now environment spokesman for the party that tried to dump Brent Spar, accused ministers of "hypocrisy on a breathtaking scale". Other governments, at the London meeting of the Oslo and Paris Conventions on sea dumping, joined in the outcry.

But hang on a minute. No one is suggesting that all the rigs should be dumped at sea, or even definitely proposing this for any of them. Britain and Norway, the only countries at the conference to have them in any numbers, were merely trying to keep their options open for a minority of the structures - the biggest ones in the deepest water. They wanted to be able, when the time comes more then a decade hence, to consider sea disposal in case it turns out to be the best choice.

Where's the "folly" in that? The only reason for condemning this attitude would be if dumping at sea was so environmentally disastrous that it should never be considered. But not even Greenpeace is suggesting that now, despite some mendacious advertising during its Brent Spar campaign. Indeed the pressure group has already agreed that 28 concrete structures should be scuttled in this way because it would be too difficult to bring them to land.

An expert comparison of the merits of sinking the rigs and (as Greenpeace and most countries at the conference want) of bringing them ashore for dismantling shows that the arguments are by no means one-sided. Dismantling them turns out to be rather better for the environment, but to pose rather more danger to the lives of workers - good reason, one would have thought, for not plumping irrevocably for it now.

The group retorts that ruling out dumping would stimulate the growth of an onshore dismantling industry which would learn to do the job better and more safely. But this will not wash either. Britain and Norway only want to keep the dumping option open for about 120 of the 720 or so steel rigs in the North Sea - and only a fraction of these, if any, would ever be likely to be sunk. The other 600 or more, though smaller, should provide quite enough business to develop the industry.

The only strong environmentalist argument is one of principle - that it is wrong to use the seas needlessly for waste. There has indeed been, and is still, a scandalous amount of pollution. But dumping the rigs would add little to this. More than three-quarters of all pollution flows into the seas from the land. Greenpeace has campaigned about this wider and much greater problem, but has never made as much fuss about it as over the Brent Spar.

The issue before the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, which opened in Oman yesterday, is even more frustrating. Here the intransigence of environmentalists - backed by many governments, including Britain - could lead to a free-for-all on the high seas. They have broken faith with the bargains struck when whaling was halted.

In 1982 the countries on the commission - which regulates the industry - rightly voted for a moratorium on whaling, after decades of indiscriminate killing had brought species after species crashing towards extinction. The idea was to stop while scientists worked out how many whales were left and set accurate quotas for numbers that could be killed without depleting their populations.

Both jobs have now been done. The experts have found that there are plenty of minke whales - the only species being hunted at the time of the ban - between 610,000 and 1,284,000. And they have worked out a quota system that even the World Wide Fund for Nature admits has not been faulted. But the anti-whaling groups and countries will give no ground. Britain has said it will not support setting new quotas unless the ban remains in force, rather defeating the object of the exercise. Greenpeace is pressing for all the oceans to be declared a "global whale sanctuary". It says that whaling should be banned because it is cruel. So it may be, but this is to move the goalposts. Tony Baldry, the fisheries minister in the last government, shifted them even further. No more whales should be killed even if it could be done humanely, he said, because this was opposed "by the vast majority of our citizens".

Whatever their tactics, the conservationists have had the votes at the commission to block a lifting of the ban. So, increasingly, Norway and Japan, the two main whaling nations, have used loopholes to carry out a limited kill. They are now setting up their own regulatory bodies and may quit the commission, becoming free to whale indiscriminately.

Again the row over a relatively minor issue diverts attention from a far greater crisis. All of the world's 15 major fishing areas are being exploited to or beyond their limits: 13 are in actual decline. The increasing scarcity of fish threatens to be a major human tragedy: they are the major source of animal protein for nearly 950 million people, mostly among the world's poorest, while fishing provides employment for 120 million. Some environmentalists do draw attention to this, but with nothing like the same passion they devote to whaling.

It is, of course, much easier to raise a head of steam - and money from supporters - to save whales than to prevent over-fishing, far simpler to blame oil industries or Japan than to point out that we are all responsible for the pollution and depletion of the seas. It is depressing enough to see environmental groups playing this game, but even worse to find governments meekly following suit.