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Crossposted from European Tribune and my blog.

It's that time again. Today the International Whaling Commission (IWC) opens its annual session on St. Kitts. Among the close to 70 member states whose delegates fill the halls, only 3 -- Norway, Iceland, and Japan -- have whalers in their ranks. Yet the so-called pro-whaling wing will for the first time in decades match the anti-whaling wing this year; the English-language press has for weeks been fretting about the prospect of a narrow pro-whaling majority. The Washington Post recently intoned under the stirring headline 'Save the Whales':

LIKE MANY Americans, you might think the world had already saved the whales. The cause that galvanized so many people's environmental consciences, after all, produced an international ban on whaling fully two decades ago.

A couple of facts about this "ban" might be helpful right off the bat. First, the IWC passed the "ban" without the recommendation of its own Scientific Committee, which did not consider it necessary. Second, said "ban" was a temporary moratorium, to be reviewed in 1990 "at the latest" with an eye to fixing new, sustainable quotas. The treaty document states:

This provision will be kept under review, based upon the best scientific advice, and by 1990 at the latest the Commission will undertake a comprehensive assessment of the effects of this decision on whale stocks and consider modification of this provision and the establishment of other catch limits.

This "comprehensive assessment" has been stubbornly blocked by the anti-whalers, even though, as the Economist noted in a well-balanced article of 2003:

In the years since the moratorium was imposed, the IWC's scientists have determined that in certain waters minke, fin, Gray and Bryde's whales are now abundant enough to be hunted commercially. They have also devised a conservative method for calculating catch limits. At first, the IWC's politically appointed commissioners refused to accept their findings, prompting the resignation of the scientific committee's British chairman, Philip Hammond, in 1993. Since then, the discussions have become bogged down over non-scientific issues, as the anti-whalers have frustrated all attempts to lift the moratorium. As justification for this behaviour, some anti-whaling governments talk about the IWC's "evolving" mandate.

The IWC's actual mandate is not to suppress the hunt. It is to implement the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, whose "explicit objectives were, and remain, to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and the orderly development of the whaling industry." Source: the IWC.

Iceland, taking this at face value, was lured into accepting the moratorium; when it got the wiser, it left the IWC in 1992. Ten years hence it rejoined with an objection to the moratorium, exempting it from the latter under the Convention. Japan and Norway both reserved themselves at the outset by filing objections and so were entitled to commercial whaling seasons.

For Norway's part this remains the case. It nonetheless voluntarily suspended hunting until 1993, when it was clear that the anti-whaling majority would not allow the overdue assessment to take place. (From a legal point of view it can, in fact, be argued that the moratorium expired wholesale in 1990, but let's leave that aside.) Norway's whaling season is openly commercial -- though by no means industrial or large-scale -- so it is incorrect when the Observer, in a not exactly unbiased article entitled 'The shadow of slaughter hangs over whales', accuses Norway of hiding behind a scientific pretext.

Japan, on the other hand, withdrew its reservation under US pressure. The Japanese side of this story deserves a hearing:

The U.S. placed pressure on Japan using the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment to make Japan accept the moratorium. This domestic Law prohibits fisheries within the U.S. 200-mile coastal zone in case any country diminishes the effectiveness of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Japan withdrew the objection from the IWC and terminated the whaling operations under the agreement between the U.S. and Japan. Japan was concerned about its own $650 million fishing industry and its $40 billion trade surplus toward the U.S. at that time.... In spite of the U.S.'s promise to refrain from imposing sanctions on Japan, the U.S. executed the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment on Japan in 1988....

It's a fair guess that this sense of having been double-crossed helps explain Japan's insistence on exploiting a loophole permitting whaling for research.

Returning to the WaPo:

Yet whaling continues. In fact, it's increasing. Japan, Norway and Iceland never stopped hunting whales.... Lately those numbers have been creeping up, and this year they are almost doubling to nearly 2,400 whales. What's more, Japan is no longer limiting itself to relatively plentiful minke whales but is once again hunting the decimated populations of fin and sperm whales and plans to begin killing humpback whales as well. In 2008, Japan and Norway plan to kill 3,215 cetaceans.

The reemergence of whaling could get a considerable boost this month at, of all places, the meeting of the International Whaling Commission - the body that supervises the supposed ban on commercial hunting.

Norway and Iceland never stopped hunting? For Norway's case, see above. As to Iceland, it suspended activity from 1989 to 1993, when it reintroduced a scientific quoata of 38 minke in order to "have a better understanding of all the factors that might impact fish stocks - including whales."

As to the meeting in St. Kitts, the WaPo is concerned:

Japan has aggressively sought pro-whaling allies, and it now has close to a majority of votes. While it would take more than a majority to undo the ban, it would significantly relieve pressure on those countries that flout the ban if a majority of the commission didn't care.

Not so fast. First, noone is 'flouting the ban'. The hunting carried out today is unquestionably legal, however else one feels about it, and implying otherwise is simply dishonest. It is not, however, uncommon: Reuters claims that Norway "openly defies the ban." The Independent called Norway's hunt 'illegal' on June 11, demonstrating that it's not above a "noble" lie, much like veracity-challenged organizations such as Greenpeace.

Second, Japan has indeed been recruiting allies, even using foreign aid as an incentive. However, the strategy of involving countries with no horse in the race is one that leading anti-whaling members have pursued for a generation. The IWC was established in 1946 by the world's 14 main whaling nations. Between 1979 and 1982, 19 new countries joined; ten attended their first IWC-meeting in 1982. Thus, for instance, landlocked Switzerland helped pass the moratorium. This April, Israel, which has hitherto had bigger fish to fry than whaling, saw fit to join. Since when has one the few countries rejecting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty favored multilateral regimes? According to the Haaretz, since the US ambassador made a personal appeal to the Israeli Foreign Minister on the matter.

Third, the pro-whaling High North Alliance notes that the theoretical pro-whaling majority may not manifest itself in votes in the chaotic bargaining circus that is an IWC session. In any case, the pro-whalers will not be able to raise the 3/4 majority required to scrap the moratorium. The "considerable boost," which the Independent decries as a "Great Betrayal," is unlikely to amount to much in practice.

But the bullying of the anti-whaling countries, spurred by organizations like Greenpeace for which the issue is an effective fundraiser, isn't doing so either. If anything, the Economist notes, this Ahab-like zeal is prone to backfire:

Their mixture of propaganda, insults, distorted scientific half-truths and lies tends to stir up nationalist sentiment among the pro-whaling countries, who consider themselves victims of sanctimonious foreigners practising cultural and culinary imperialism.

[snip]

How might this bizarre war of attrition come to an end? For a start, those opposed to whaling could look themselves in the eye and ask why a multinational organisation, reflecting the views of just one group, should claim for itself the right to deny other countries the freedom to kill their own animals, which are in plentiful supply, as they see fit? Should those who disapprove of the killing of animals according to kosher or halal practice set the universal slaughtering standards for Jews and Muslims? Should Hindus be allowed to impose their views about cow-killing on the world's hamburger-eaters? Should militant vegetarians have the right to forbid anyone anywhere to kill an animal?

In fact, less moralising from the anti-whalers might even serve their purpose better, if that purpose is indeed to save whales from the harpoon. The economics of whaling is unlikely ever to attract much hunting, and certainly nothing on a large scale. It is the politics that excites: politicians champion whaling in Japan, Iceland and Norway because it is popular to stand up to foreign bullying.

Can someone please explain this to, say, the ambassadors from 12 countries who recently, in an unusual diplomatic move reminiscent of the Muhammed madness, saw fit to impugn the integrity of Norway's marine researchers? These researchers are independent, leading in their field, and applying the method devised by the IWC Scientific Committee to set sustainable catch quotas for the North Atlantic minke whale.

And what will it take to make anti-whaling governments realize that, if they doubt the resource management of whaling nations, they should let the IWC itself perform that role in accordance with its mandate?

If demand for whale meat is indeed dwindling in the whaling countries, as they claim, then surely that is the way to let the whaling business die a natural death, while in the meantime making whaling nations more receptive to legitimate questions of animal welfare?

Or is the endless whaling brouhaha just too convenient as a diversion from truly grave environmental challenges like global warming, the depletion of fish stocks, and the pollution of the seas?

For more on the facts and ethics of Norwegian minke whale hunting, see my blogpost, Why I had whale steak for dinner today.

Originally posted to Sirocco on Fri Jun 16, 2006 at 10:36 AM PDT.

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