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Whaling ban safe for now

July 23, 2004 By Amanda Leigh Haag This article courtesy of Nature News.

But pro-whaling countries question future of international commission.

International bans on commercial whaling are unlikely to be lifted in the near future. That's the take-home message from four days of stormy negotiations at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The meeting in Sorrento, Italy, came to a close yesterday with yet another year of gridlock over approval of a plan for sustainable management and monitoring of whale catches.

IWC chairman Henrik Fischer shocked anti-whaling delegates with a statement on the opening day that a "Revised Management Scheme", or RMS, should be in place by the 2005 annual meeting in South Korea. That would have lifted an 18-year moratorium on commercial whaling and allowed resumption of hunting under a catch-quota system.

But critics of the plan say the proposed RMS is unenforceable, because it lacks penalties or compliance mechanisms to ensure that illegal whaling and under-reporting don't occur.

"The draft that is on the table is not even on a par with fisheries agreements around the world," says Kitty Block of Humane Society International. "Other fisheries agreements have international observers and inspectors, and satellite tracking. This one has no international inspectors or observers," she says.

The decision not to implement the RMS represents a substantial victory, for the time being, for countries and non-profit groups opposed to the resumption of full-scale commercial whaling.

Mounting tension

If IWC doesn't have a management system, then the whaling countries will have no reason to stay in it.
Gavin Carter
spokesman for the pro-whaling IWMC World Conservation Trust
The stakes were high even before the start of this year's meeting after claims that "vote buying" by Japan threatened to tip the balance of countries in favour of a vote for commercial whaling. Although it was considered unlikely before the meeting that pro-whaling countries would achieve the three-quarters majority needed to win the vote, many feared that new member countries and developing countries siding with Japan would give the pro-whaling countries a moral victory. Tension mounted further after Fischer's announcement that the management regime should be approved by 2005, as it created what seemed to be an unstoppable momentum towards lifting the ban.

Japan has expressed extreme dissatisfaction over the outcome of the meeting. In addition to losing the vote on the RMS, its proposal for a commercial catch of 3,000 minke whales in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary of the Antarctic was also rejected. Japan says the sanctuary should be abolished altogether, as the Antarctic has the most abundant whale populations in the world.

But Doug DeMaster, chair of the IWC's scientific committee, says there has not been enough research to adequately assess the stocks of whales in the sanctuary. Now that the third circumpolar survey of the Southern Ocean has been completed, and three sets of data points are available, the scientific committee will be able to start looking at trends in minke-whale abundance, says DeMaster.

Countries in favour of the proposed management scheme say that unless the IWC comes up with a management system for whaling, it won't survive. Japan's commissioner to the IWC, Minoru Morimoto, says that this year's decisions "have heightened our concern about the future relevance of the IWC for Japan", and "provide the incentive for us to look outside of the IWC to achieve our goals".

"Whales will only be protected in the long term if there is a management system," says Gavin Carter, spokesman for the IWMC World Conservation Trust, a non-profit group that supports the sustainable use of commercial whaling. "If IWC doesn't have one, then of course the whaling countries will have no reason to stay in it, and then you have no chance for an international management system to protect whales."


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