The International Whaling Commission convened for its yearly meeting on Monday in Berlin. Despite deep divisions between whalers and conservationists, delegates already agreed on measures to help protect whales.
Greenpeace hung a plastic whale from Berlin's TV tower to protest against whaling on Sunday.
Tempers were running high at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Berlin on Monday when Japan threatened to walk out of talks. Along with Norway, the Asian country insisted that new initiatives to protect whales be taken off the agenda of the meeting that runs from June 16 to 20.
Still, the IWC's 50 member countries, which are deeply split between pro- and anti-whaling factions, voted 25 to 20 in favor of a motion to form a conservation panel. At the fore of the countries that proposed the so-called Berlin Initiative is Germany, formerly a whaling country itself.
"People used to be afraid of nature and of supposed sea monsters. Nowadays they are afraid for nature," German Agriculture Minister Renate Künast said in her opening address.
She called on whaling nations to develop whale watching as an industry instead of hunting the mammals. Her plea was received with disbelief by Norway and criticized by the High North Alliance, a group of North Atlantic whalers, who said that most whalers live in remote places where such tourism could not be developed.
The IWC declared a moratorium on commercially hunting large whales in 1986. The animals may only to be killed for scientific purposes or by indigenous peoples in Greenland, Siberia and Alaska. But Norway, which never signed the moratorium and says it therefore doesn't have to abide by it, continues to hunt the mammals. Japan officially adheres to the commercial moratorium, but it also kills an unlimited number for research. Iceland hopes it will receive permission to hunt up to 500 animals each year for science reasons at the Berlin meeting.
Science or food?
Whale sashimi at a fish market in Shimonoseki, Japan.
Germany's Künast criticized scientific whaling, saying that it is mostly about food. Her concern is shared by environmental groups which have said Japan's claims that it hunts whales only for research are untrue.
Instead they say Japan main aim is take advantage of the profitable market in whale blubber. They have also accused Iceland of intending to catch whales to sell on the Japanese market rather than for their own research.
Observers had predicted this year's meeting would once again pit pro-whaling countries and conservationists against each other without bringing forth any significant results. But environmental groups are already celebrating.
"This is a great success and a historical day for the protection of whales," World Wildlife Fund whale specialist Volker Holmes told AFP after the Berlin Initiative was passed. The motion has been lauded by conservationists, who believe it addresses many problems that threaten whales, such as becoming entangled in nets, water pollution, climate change and the use of sonar, which they say disorients the cetaceans.
Earlier in the day, Japan had said it would leave the meeting if the Berlin Initiative won support. "That is one of the options or we could consider stopping our payments," delegate Masayuki Komatsu told Reuters.
Conservation groups had voiced fears on Monday that the meeting could tip the scales in favor of the whalers.
"The commission started off as a whaling body, but over time it has been moving towards conservation," Richard Page of Greenpeace told Deutsche Welle. "A lot depends on how the [new members] vote at this meeting. We're worried that these countries have actually been recruited to the pro-whaling side by the Fisheries Agency of Japan, which has been using fisheries grant aid to buy the votes of developing countries in the commission," he said.
Greenpeace claims that over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die as a result of human activities each year. To highlight the organization's campaign, Greenpeace attached a 15-meter inflatable whale to Berlin's Fernsehturm, the city's landmark TV tower, on Sunday (photo above) with a banner reading "IWC Act Now."