Things you won't hear at the whaling commission

The migration of whales to South Africa’s coastline has begun, just as another annual but far less rewarding spectacle is about to unfold in the Caribbean.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) meets from June 16 to 20 in St Kitts. Once more the tussle between pro-whalers and anti-whalers is poised on a knife-edge.
Once again the vote depends on who recruited more nations to join in this annual ritual. Insults and accusations fly. The opposing sides are so far apart that middle ground is elusive.

The IWC, established in 1946, does not reflect today’s global conservation concerns. Its constitution says that it will set quotas for annual whale hunts. The only reason it was formed was the realisation that whales had been brought close to extinction. The only reason quotas are not being set is that the majority of IWC members supported a moratorium on all whaling more than two decades ago, and Japan has not been able to muster the votes for a reversal.

The debate on the IWC floor is surreal and, if it was not for the fear of letting one’s side down, the money spent on attending these meetings would be scandalously wasteful.

In the absence of resolution of the impasse, Japan catches whales anyway. It says it does so for scientific purposes. A thousand whales a year for science? Everyone knows it is a lie, but the IWC has no powers to control or stop this. Norway attends the meeting, but argues that it never agreed with the moratorium, and is therefore not bound to observe it. Iceland recently demonstrated the regard in which it holds international opinion when it began whaling again.

There are no signs that South Africa, which was once a whaling nation, wishes to return to this bloody trade. But there are scores of African and Caribbean countries that vote in favour of whaling, presumably motivated by the desire for a fast buck.

The developing nations that support whaling’s Big Three routinely lecture the IWC on colonialism and racism, while failing to acknowledge that they are backing some of the main colonisers of the global oceans. The only denominator linking those who cheer on Japan is that they are among the poorest on the globe. Yet if whaling was to start all over again, it’s a safe assumption that developing nations would be unlikely to get much of the action.

I count myself among those who oppose whaling on ethical grounds. I grew up on a Cape coastline that never saw a whale because others hunted them to extinction. I see no reason to give the whalers a second chance now that the whales are coming back.

There are many other reasons to oppose the Japanese slaughter, but the IWC debate is trapped in ritual that prevents discussion of the wider issues. It is time that more is said about joint management and joint benefit of the oceans’ resources. Why should the seas be the preserve of whalers? Why should they consider it their right to fish in our waters?

The oft-quoted argument that minke whales have increased to the point where hunting them can be managed on a “sustainable” basis is based on false assumptions.

It is statistically true that annual hunts of a specific number leave enough for that number to replenish itself over a period. But this argument is blind to the size of populations prior to the beginning of hunting, and it fails to take cognisance of the role whales play in an overall ecosystem. The world is only beginning to understand the pyramidal structure of such systems and how the targeted hunt of one affects all other animal and plant growth of such a system.

The trouble with the seas is that they are both ecosystems and hunting grounds. In terrestrial systems, boundaries can be enforced and management can be dealt with transparently. Not so with the oceans—the last global frontier with no effective control or management. The United Nations Law of the Sea and related conventions are inadequate instruments.

South Africa should not make any concessions to Japan. Its tuna fleets had unlimited access to our territorial waters as a concession during the apartheid years, and when they were asked to leave their grasp of the issues remained scant. Adding insult to injury, they then prevented South Africa from being awarded a Southern Bluefin Tuna quota (the very tuna they caught in South African waters), despite the fact that this is a southern hemisphere species that traverses our waters.

Japan wants to hunt whales in southern waters. It is high time that southern hemisphere nations refuse to sell their rights over the oceans to predators from the north.

Horst Kleinschmidt is former South African commissioner to the International Whaling Commission

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