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ENVIRONMENT: No Breakthrough Seen in Whaling Stalemate

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, Jun 22 2009 (IPS) - Environmental groups expressed little hope the participants at the 61st annual International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting, beginning Monday in Madeira, Portugal, would reach a compromise that would reduce the number of whales killed each year.

Delegates from more than 80 countries will continue the two-decade dispute between pro-whaling countries like Japan, Iceland, and Norway, and anti-whaling ones like the U.S., the EU and Australia. They will examine an IWC compromise proposal under which Japan would exchange at least part of its Southern Ocean research quota for permission to hunt in its coastal waters.

“I don’t think this is the meeting of the breakthrough,” Remi Parmentier of the U.S.-based Pew Whales Conservation Project told the Associated Press (AP) from Madeira.

Greenpeace whaling campaigner Sara Holden feared the talks would fail to end the long-standing stalemate.

“My main concern is that the delegates here are simply going to sit on their hands content to talk for another year whilst whales continue to die,” Holden told AP Television News.

Japan, Iceland and Norway run commercial whaling operations which kill around 2,000 whales a year and they are reluctant to give up the trade. They want to lift the ban on the trade, which is outlawed under the terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Pro-whaling countries argue that many species are abundant enough to continue hunting them.

An IWC moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1986. Since then, the Japanese fleet, which hunts in Antarctica and the northwestern Pacific Ocean under an IWC exemption for scientific research, has killed some 12,000 whales. Critics say the research programme is merely a cover for commercial whaling and that technological advances make it unnecessary to harpoon the whales.

Iceland and Norway formally objected to the moratorium, declaring themselves exempt under IWC rules.

Japan started importing whale meat in 2008: a few tens of tonnes of Iceland whale meat and less than 10 tonnes from Norway. The Nordic nations hope to increase that amount this year.

“That shows the despair of the whaling industry, that can’t sell its products in Norway and so is trying to get rid of them abroad at any price,'” said Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace in Scandinavia.

According to Reece Turner from Greenpeace, Denmark will try to get permission to hunt more whales for subsistence purposes this year.

“Greenland which belongs to Denmark, of course, is looking to have a quota of 10 humpback whales for next year,” he said.

“All of this means that on top of Norway’s annual hunt, it looks like if these quotas were to go through, that European nations could for the first time be hunting more whales than Japan currently does,” he said.

In January, the Icelandic government increased its annual whale quota from 49 to 300, just before resigning over its poor handling of the global financial crisis. Environmentalists say the new government has done nothing to prevent the hunt.

Last week, four fin whales, listed as an endangered species globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, were caught and processed in Hvalfjördur, west Iceland. They represent the first of a planned quota of 150 fin whales.

“The government has dismally failed to show leadership despite its own outspoken opposition to the hunt,” said Holden of Greenpeace.

“Today it is clear that the whaling policy in Iceland is really run by the whaler Kristjan Loftsson and his company Hvalur ehf. But what little profit he may make from this fin whale hunt will come at great cost to Iceland – economically and politically,” she added.

Greenpeace contends that there is no longer a market for whale meat in Japan.

Earlier this month, the managing director of Tokyo-based Asia Trading Co. Ltd. told a Greenpeace researcher he had accepted an import of fin and minke whale meat from Iceland and Norway last year as a favour to Iceland whaler Kristjan Loftsson, because he was a friend, but had no plans to repeat the deal.

“If you can’t sell to your friends, and the three biggest fisheries companies in Japan have already said they don’t even want Japanese whale meat, then there is no possibility that there is a viable export market from Iceland to Japan,” said Wakao Hanaoka, Greenpeace Japan Oceans campaigner, speaking in Iceland.

Anti-whaling countries, with support from conservation and environmental groups, want to tighten the restrictions introduced by a 1986 moratorium.

“Our planet’s great whales face more threats today than at any time in history,” said Patrick Ramage, whale programme director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “It’s time to get rid of commercial whaling, not the whaling ban.”

In its opening statement to the IWC, Greenpeace warned that the whale population was in danger of extinction if the ban on commercial whaling was not upheld.

“If incidental takes by net entanglement are not sharply reduced or halted, the current take of western grey whales will drive the population to extinction during this century. The survival of the northern right whale remains in the balance, with ship strikes and net entanglements preventing population recovery. The Vaquita is critically endangered. Two years ago the Baiji was declared extinct.”

According to IFAW, the compromise deal would violate the moratorium and established scientific procedures, legitimize Japan’s ongoing “scientific” whaling and ignore decades of work by the IWC Scientific Committee.

“Countries that support sound science and whale conservation should reject this deal and instead take action inside and outside the IWC to make the commercial whaling moratorium effective,” Ramage said. “The future of the IWC is science-based conservation, not sanctioned commercial slaughter.”

A three-quarter majority vote is required for major changes to the IWC convention regulating whaling, and the IWC is roughly split between whaling nations and their supporters and anti-whaling nations.

Greenpeace urged the IWC to “(transform) itself from a body that attempts to manage whales for the benefit of the whaling industry, to an organisation that seeks to conserve and protect cetaceans worldwide.”

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