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Whaling woes

June 18, 2010

The International Whaling Commission will next week consider a proposal to ease a global ban on commercial whaling. As pro- and anti-whaling nations gear up for a showdown, DW spoke to an expert about the key issues.

A whale dives off Brazil's Santa Catarina state coast
It's crunch time for whale conservation as the IWC meets next weekImage: AP

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the international body that regulates whaling. It has maintained a moratorium on commercial catches since 1986, but countries such as Japan, Norway and Iceland hunt whales under a variety of exceptions. This year's gathering in Agadir, Morocco, is expected to seek a compromise between pro- and anti-whaling countries, which could end the ban.

Niki Entrup is the campaign manager for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) in Germany. He spoke to Deutsche Welle about Japan's defiant pro-whaling stance, Australia's legal challenge and the European Union's lack of enthusiasm for concrete action against whaling.

Deutsche Welle: Could you explain what next week's conference is about?

Niki Entrup is the Campaign Manager for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) in Germany
Niki Entrup says it's 'bizarre' to talk of lifting a ban on whalingImage: WDCS

Niki Entrup: The IWC decided in 1982 that commercial whaling should be banned, and that ban came into force in 1986. Many nations stopped whaling activities. 24 years on, hundreds of thousands of whales have been saved. Now the international community is again discussing lifting that ban on commercial whaling, which is a bizarre situation.

Even countries that are in favor of ending whaling are defending a compromise. They say that if we let countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland have a quota system, at least we can reduce the number of whales killed overall.

Let's look into this in a little bit of detail.

Just three countries continue whaling today under different scenarios. Norway has never agreed to the ban. Japan uses a treaty right which the public knows as scientific whaling and Iceland has resumed commercial whaling (after initially accepting the ban).

A Japanese whaling ship
A Japanese whaling ship sets sail for its annual huntImage: AP

Those three countries practice whaling under a self-allocated quota. It's not recognized internationally. It has been condemned many times. In this situation, the IWC and many countries say, 'look, let's give them something, let's legalize all their whaling activities and in return these countries will reduce the numbers of whales killed per year.'

When you look into that proposal in detail, that's total bonkers. What really happens is that there is a voluntary discussion on reducing the number of whale kills and actually the only reduction would take place in the southern hemisphere in a whale sanctuary. But still you would allow whaling in a whale sanctuary. So I think that's a pretty bad result for whale conservation if it is accepted.

The countries that are in favor of achieving this compromise though say: 'Look, the moratorium that we've had in place since 1984 hasn't been working. These countries are whaling anyway.' So how do you deal with that?

First of all let's look at the facts of how many whales have been killed.

Before the moratorium came into force and since the IWC was founded, we saw the so-called whaling Olympics in the 1950s and 1960s where tens of thousands of whales were killed every year. And countries didn't stop whaling because they didn't want to continue any more. Whaling countries stopped commercial whaling in many circumstances because there weren't any whales any more. In 1982, when the ban on commercial whaling was decided, many of the whale populations were already commercially extinct.

A hump-backed whale off the coast of Puerto Lopez in Ecuador
A hump-backed whale off the coast of Puerto Lopez in EcuadorImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Now we face the situation that three countries kill around 1,500 whales per year. That's 1,500 too many, we believe. However, if the conclusion is ' let's reward them for their continued ignorance on international decisions,' I think that's the wrong step. I think the international community should say: 'How do we make those three countries follow international agreements?'

There is a potential that if these countries don't get their way, they'll just pull out of the IWC – wouldn't that be a disaster for conservation efforts?

When I first attended the IWC in 2000 in Australia, that argument was made. Yet at the same time Japan was spending a lot of money to bring certain countries into the IWC. Japan and Norway have brought many countries into the IWC (to support their position) – why should they pull out?

Secondly, if they pull out, then they undertake activities against the internationally recognized body to regulate whaling, and that might have legal implications.

So let's look at the legal implications. Australia has now taken Japan to the International Court of Justice over whaling. Is this a unique development?

Absolutely. It's not about just violating the ban on commercial whaling, it's about violating a sanctuary. What is unique in this context, and we need to congratulate the Australian government, is that they moved from the rhetorical part of condemning whaling to concrete actions.

We miss that in the European Union. In the European Union, countries and governments just stick to bureaucratic negotiations between themselves, they don't have a position. For two years, they have not taken any foreign policy activities towards other countries to convince them to stop, or work against, whaling.

Many people usually associate the European Union with a bloc that's at the forefront of environmental campaigns. So why isn't the EU in the campaign against whaling?

We have two member states, Denmark and Sweden, who are proactively lobbying for the legalization of what they call sustainable whaling. The majority of countries in the European Union want to see whaling ceased, but there is a huge discussion about how the European Union finds a common position. It's been a bureaucratic exercise for two years now - hours and weeks of negotiations without coming to the conclusion.

Returning to this whole issue of punitive measures against Japan - couldn't Japan just ignore them and, without any consequences, continue doing whatever it wants?

A trader selling whale meat in Japan
Whale meat is considered a delicacy in JapanImage: AP

Yes they could. It's a treaty right to do scientific whaling and they could continue using that loophole. On the other hand the International Whaling Commission has recognized these whaling activities as being commercial. So there is quite a legal, very clear situation: these are commercial whaling activities.

So this could be tied to trade, and this could be tied to punitive measures within trade if countries were to wish that?

Yes. And consider the current situation in Japan with the prime minister stepping back and the new leader a former finance minister. When you look at the finances, these whaling activities are subsidized. Taxpayers pay for those whaling activities. I think the public should stand up and say 'sorry, we don't need whaling. Let's save money and put it somewhere else.'

But it's also a highly emotive issue in many of these countries tied to a sense of national identity, isn't it?

I think that was an argument built up by certain governments to use this to create the kind of paradigm which probably doesn't reflect the truth. I would say urban citizens in those countries are predominantly unaware of those activities or have a critical view of them.

To listen to the unabridged version of this interview, or to check out the WDCS stats on the moratorium's impact on whaling, click on the links below.

Interview: Nathan Witkop
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar