Saturday, June 27, 2009

IWC 2009

Humpback Whales

Hi everyone,

Here is a story about the last day of this year's IWC meeting. Please use it in any way you may wish. It will be posted on our web site ( soon, along with some photos.

IWC 2009 June 23

Greenland humpbacks: to kill or not

The morning session of IWC 61 (’09) Day Two was taken up by discussion of the “future” of the IWC, and the need to continue Chairman Hogarth’s efforts to resolve the deadlock that has arisen in negotiations, i.e. the failure of wishful thinking. The meeting was presented with a draft document titled “Consensus resolution on the extension of Small Working Group on the Future of the IWC until the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Commission” and asked to approve it. Getting the issue softly out of the way would have allowed the meeting to move on to other matters, and apparently this is what Chairman Hogarth expected to happen. After all, he had virtually been assured of consensus agreement at a private (read secret) Commissioners-only meeting on Sunday. Possibly some delegates weren’t paying attention, or else second thoughts had occurred in the interim, because many voices suddenly wanted to be heard. Predictable positions emerged as plainly as ever, making it quite clear that consensus was absent in the room. India contributed its belief that the 21st century should be dedicated to the recovery of whale populations after centuries of exploitation, a sentiment shared by many. Sadly and ominously, a dour note was sounded when a proposal to delete the reference to “a strong belief in maintaining healthy populations of whales and especially in the restoration of severely reduced populations” from the resolution. If not this, what, opined one observer, is the IWC about? Fortunately, Russia provided a light moment, amiably describing the establishment of a small smoking group with some Pacific Islanders, with the intention of studying the effects of the rain on this activity.

After lunch, things became far darker. The agenda item was the report of the Aboriginal Subsistence sub-committee, but the meat of the afternoon session was in Greenland’s request to add the deaths of 10 humpback whales to the long list of cetaceans if kills annually to feed its people, and incidentally create profits for supermarket retailers and whale product wholesalers. Yes, Greenland’s aboriginal whalers are partly commercial whalers. Aboriginal subsistence needs are generally regarded sympathetically by IWC members, but humpbacks have been a much beloved iconic species for decades. Virtually anyone, including Greenlanders, who propose making humpbacks gush their life’s blood as they experience agonizing death, can expect opposition. This must have been Greenland’s expectation, because until last night, during a fun-filled reception hosted by Madeira’s government, no one (apart from the proponents) knew what was about to happen. Greenland had submitted its proposal to the Secretariat at the last possible moment yesterday, and it had not been reviewed, as is customary, by the Aboriginal Subsistence sub-committee.

Last year, when Greenland (Denmark) proposed killing humpbacks, the IWC refused permission. This time round, though the proposal is the same, i.e. 10 humpbacks to be killed each year, the outcome is far less clear. The problem lies in the decision by the group of IWC members who belong to the European Union. Even though the EU is not a member of the IWC, the group of 24 EU countries that are members decided to vote as a bloc before this year’s meeting started. Suddenly, they are immersed in a nightmare. One of them, Denmark, is the proposer; others (e.g. Sweden) want EU members to abstain, knowing perfectly well that if they do so, Greenland’s wish will be granted. Getting consensus about a common position among the EU members in this room suddenly looks about as likely as Chairman Hogarth’s prospects for getting consensus about the future direction this chaotic organization will go in.

Tomorrow, the NGOs will have a chance to speak, 3 on each side of the barrier, for 5 minutes each. Perhaps rays of light, or pearls of wisdom will descend on this room under the volcanoe. We can only hope.

With thanks to WDCS bloggers


IWC 2009 June 24, 2009

On the edge

It became clear today that this 61st meeting of the IWC has only one substantive item on its agenda, Greenland’s attempt to obtain the Commission’s approval for killing humpback whales. Just before the afternoon session closed (it was running an hour late) Denmark announced that its request on behalf of Greenland was being reduced from 10 humpbacks per year for 3 years, to 10 humpbacks for “just” one year. Denmark seemed very pleased with the change, and expressed confidence that consensus would now occur. Possibly wanting to avoid an open dog fight, Chairman Hogarth put off debate until tomorrow morning, urging delegates to talk about it over night, and enjoy the wine at the NGO reception, being careful not to get lost on the way home. It’s not difficult to see what’s afoot here. Reliable sources say that the US has been strong arming (or charming) delegates all day, no doubt at the behest of Chairman Hogarth, who is also the head of the US delegation, telling (or asking) them to agree to Greenland’s modest proposal when it comes to the floor tomorrow morning. There seems to be a vague if not explicit threat in the message, i.e. that unless Greenland (read, whalers, aboriginal or not) gets its way, the delicate state of “future” negotiations could be in jeopardy. Well. In the first instance, everyone knows that once Greenland’s toe is in the door, the door will remain open; and beyond that, the floodgates that hide the “cultural” coastal whaling that Chairman Hogarth dreams of solving the entire IWC puzzle stand ready.

The tactics being employed are a combination of stealth and brute (or subtle) force. As noted yesterday, Denmark waited until the last possible moment to submit its resolution, and it didn’t give the Aboriginal Whaling sub-committee any clues, so the plot wasn’t even visible to most delegates until they came into the room yesterday. Just the same, wily pro-whale NGO’s, accustomed to the underhanded ways of its opposition, were ready, and immediately set about changing minds and (possible) votes. Recognising that US policy is in flux, and that President Obama has promised to base decisions on science, WDCS set up a page on its web site aimed at flooding the White House with ‘save Greenland humpbacks’ messages, hoping the US delegation would receive orders from Washington to back off. We’ll see what tomorrow brings; in the meantime, Greenland humpbacks stand at a (flensing) knife’s edge.

Speaking of NGOs, the highlight of this day occurred early on, when 6 NGOs, 3 on each side representing their respective communities, spoke to the assembled delegates. The pro-whaling speeches, from indigenous and commercial whalers, were full of heart, need, and fear. It was impossible to resist the charm of a Maori blessing, and the urgency of a Chukotka plea for understanding; nor was it easy to evade the concern felt by whalers’ families as their loved ones headed into Antarctic waters inhabited by fearsome enemies. But the combination of history, knowledge, science, logic and heartfelt concern for the dangers the oceans, the whales and our world are facing now that was provided by the pro-whale NGOs, though understated in tone, was forceful and utterly convincing. Dr. Sidney Holt, who has certainly been involved in the whaling debate far longer than anyone else in the room, announced his conclusion that the only possible way “forward” is to phase out and close down commercial and “scientific” whaling, forever. No more moratoriums or limited opportunities, just stop, period, and within 3 years of the decision being made. Given that Dr. Holt had been an ardent advocate of setting in place a system that would provide limited opportunity for whaling, while protecting vulnerable whale populations, his view provided a clean and welcome counterpoint to the messy manipulations of Chairman Hogarth. Should it be accepted, it would enable “us” to get on with what is critically important, saving endangered oceans and our precious planet.

It is interesting to note things that get the room going, united or divided. Whale watching is one such issue. It is enthusiastically endorsed by numerous IWC members, including former whaling nations who sing its praises. By one account, it is now a 2 billion dollar industry, a sum close enough to bank bailout numbers to raise interest among even die hard holdouts who cling to the belief that the only sustainable “use” whales of lies in their dead bodies. For a while this morning, it seemed possible that complaints about the benefits of whale watching flowing only to rich countries might translate into an initiative, suggested by Monaco & others, that might see whale watching know-how transferred to poorer nations which would directly benefit (and which Japan finds easy to persuade). It hasn’t happened yet, but perhaps a seed has been planted. The one thing that rocked the room and rolled everyone into the same corner, scrambling to be heard, was the issue of safety at sea, which translates into the issue of Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling activism in the Antarctic. A video shot from the mast of a Japanese whaler, accompanied by panicky shouts from the crew, was universally accepted as evidence of blatant aggression, which soon became evidence of piracy equivalent to that now happening off Somalia; and the utter gall of the pirates’ leader, observed lounging by the pool in the hotel next door, was beyond belief. It took an hour before the steam was spent, and though in the end it was acknowledged that after 30 years of outrage, Paul Watson would probably be back for more, it was also acknowledged that the IWC was probably powerless to prevent him from returning to the Antarctic.

And so the show goes on. Surprisingly, tomorrow will probably be the last day. This belief, encouraged by Chairman Hogarth, does however rely on his expectation that consensus will occur around Greenland’s humpback goal. If he is wrong, the road ahead to the end of this meeting could be long.


IWC 2009 June 26, 2009

So the band plays on

This 61st meeting of the International Whaling Commission began with a wonderful medley from Madeira’s Mandolin Orchestra, the oldest such in Europe. It brought back memories of a former time when families sat around the radio, imagining themselves stepping off a train into a crowded street where music played and people danced in each others arms, waltzing, round and round. What primal pleasure it evoked, entrancing the room. If only the mood had remained. Chairman Hogarth, to his credit, was choked and practically in tears at the end when he said farewell, telling everyone “I consider y’all my family” as he handed the baton on to Chile’s Commissioner, confessing that he didn’t know whether to sing or dance, and wishing him and everyone luck in the task ahead. Sadly, he forgot to mention that the task ahead is precisely that which he had in front of him when his tenure began 3 years ago; with one foot mired in mud and the other stepping onto quicksand. No-one could doubt the sincerity of Chairman Hogarth’s intentions, or his gratitude for being allowed to hold onto his job when the new US Administration took over, but the simple truth is, like so much else that came with the Bush era, and despite the standing ovation that accompanied his exit, he failed.

The morning of the last day of this shortened week provided a perfect example of the delusional state Chairman Hogarth has been in. Last night, as you’ll recall, he ducked debate over Denmark’s modified proposal to kill humpback whales, deferring the issue until today in the belief that he could wrangle consensus in a private Commissioners-only meeting first thing this morning. Not a chance. The only thing that came out of the secret confab was a decision to tell the Secretariat to spend at least £60,000 on an intercessional meeting, to be held somewhere (Santiago, it turns out) before the start of Greenland’s next harpoon season, to settle that sole issue. The £60k is just the cost to the Secretariat, and you’d have to calculate the cost of bringing representatives from scores of countries scattered around the world to Chile (because just about everyone will want to be there) to come close to the cash that will be squandered on what is quite possibly going to be a fruitless exercise. And to get anywhere near the real cost, you’d have to add in the carbon footprint, certainly huge, that will nudge the jewel that is this planet we inhabit, in the direction of Mars. As Chairman Hogarth himself might have said, it’s enough to make a grown man cry.

So all we have from this annual exercise in futility is a vague promise to keep holding hands as we wend our way towards a Shangri-la that lies in the distance as ephemeral as a desert mirage, a perfect conclusion perhaps, to a forced vacation in paradise. After all, the next stop is Morocco. As the Russian Commissioner remarked, there at least, we’ll get to see Casablanca (quite possibly humming “as time goes by”.

None of this is to say that there are not encouraging signs popping up here and there amidst the debris. Climate change is now a big deal in deliberations of the Scientific Committee, and is increasingly mentioned in debates on the floor. Moreover, the initiative of Australia to undertake a systematic programme of non-lethal research in the southern oceans, is not only endorsed by the “like-minded” community of nations, it has stated goals that have the blessing, without dissent, of the Scientific Committee. These developments clearly represent a significant step forward. Australia, bless her, is clearly willing to back the intent (to show there is a different way to do whale science than counting bodies) with serious funding. Two major research cruises, in collaboration with New Zealand and other partners are already planned for this year, and more will follow. A new path is being opened, and (dare one say it) through that path a way to the future may be found.

As Chairman Hogarth said in his last words to this fractious and fragmented body, there’s hope, hope, hope.

The live stream has ended, but you can get more information about this year's meeting from:

As ever, this comes with our best wishes to you all,

Paul & Helena