It's an image that makes most people nauseous: a giant pool of blood in the water with a colossal creature wriggling in the last throes of death. A large processing ship floats alongside, waiting to raise the dying animal on board.
Long detested around the world and the subject of at times violent protests, whale hunting has been largely prohibited around the world for the past 24 years. Later this month, though, the 88 countries that are signatories to the moratorium will meet in Morocco to discuss possible changes to the policy. And many fear that whaling is about to become legal again.
In 1986, a global moratorium was issued against whale hunting, and the practice was supposed to be stopped entirely. But countries like Japan, Iceland and Norway use loopholes in the agreement to continue harpooning whales today. When they convene later this month, countries belonging to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), an organization paralyzed for years by infighting among member states, are expected to discuss a proposal that would completely legalize annual quotas for the killing of the marine mammals -- at least for a transition period of 10 years. Under the proposal, up to 1,400 whales could be harpooned each year, including those in protected areas. Such an agreement would mean that Iceland and Norway could hunt even more whales than they do now.
Hundreds of Whales Killed Each Year
Some fear it will be a breach in the dike, while others say it is merely the codification of the current situation. "The moratorium was never totally effective," Gert Lindemann, the German representative of IWC, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "People need to know that if they are going to defend it." In fact, hundreds of whales are still killed each year -- allegedly in the name of scientific research or to provide food for indigenous populations of the Arctic. Nevertheless, far too much whale meat still ends up on the plates of gourmands seeking a culinary adventure.
The disputed compromise was drafted by IWC head Cristian Maquieira of Chile and his deputy, Anthony Liverpool of Antigua and Barbuda. Germany also worked on the compromise with other countries, but is not expected to support the document in its current form. Opposition is also strong in Great Britain, Australia and Maquieira's own country.
The compromise envisions a transition period within which whales could be legally hunted for 10 years, but with quotas that would shrink each year. At this point, though, nobody knows what would come after this transition period. Optimists are hoping to see a complete end of whale hunting in a decade. "We need a scenario that ends with a complete ban on the commercial hunting of whales," said German IWC commissioner Lindemann. But whale hunting nations like Iceland have already signalled that they would never accept such a ban.
'The Price To Pay'
"Some whaling will be the price to pay for the reduction in the number of whales killed," IWC head Maquieira said in April. But environmental activists don't like the plan. They complain that rule breakers like Japan, whose whaling fleet claims only to kill whales for scientific reasons, will be rewarded -- and that their hunt will become legal. In addition, whale conservationists fear, the killing would be very difficult to stop at the end of the 10-year period.
"We absolutely oppose the draft," Nicolas Entrup of the international whale and dolphin protection organization WDCS told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It is the worst document we have seen in a long time." At the same time, the IWC is under considerable political pressure from all sides. The United States, for example, is expected to push strongly for the compromise in order to secure hunting quotas for the Inuit population of Alaska.
Iceland has also vehemently rejected the IWC compromise, and the country's IWC commissioner, Tomas Heidar, made clear to SPIEGEL ONLINE that his country would not abandon its current position on whale hunting. The government in Reykjavik does not want to accept the ban on the international trade in whale meat, which would remain in place even under the compromise.
But in Berlin, Lindemann said that "Iceland also has to fully accept the export ban." He added: "It's Iceland that wants to become part of the European Union and not the other way around. The rules are clear." Whaling, which is illegal in the EU, is expected to be a major issue during accession talks with Reykjavik for membership in the European political club.
Support for the Compromise in Denmark and Sweden
For years, the countries in favor of whale hunting and those against it have been deadlocked in negotiations at the International Whaling Commission. Some fear a showdown could unfold in Agadir, Morocco, where IWC is to meet on June 21. "The European Union holds the balance and could tip the scales," said whale protection advocate Entrup. But the Europeans themselves are far from united on the issue. Although most EU member states oppose whale hunting, Denmark and Sweden have both said they will support the compromise.
Now EU countries must determine whether unanimity is required or whether a so-called qualified majority will suffice to cast a single vote on behalf of the EU. If it is determined that unanimity is required under the recently ratified Lisbon Treaty of reforms and Europe is unable to reach it, then the EU would have to abstain from voting on the compromise, and whaling proponents in the IWC could gain the upper hand in the impasse.
The German parliament, the Bundestag, was expected to take up the issue on Thursday night. The last time the parliament voted on the issue of whale hunting in 2007, members cast unanimous votes in favor of maintaining the moratorium, and this week's outcome is not likely to be different.
'The End of Commercial Whaling Must Come'
In a joint statement issued on Thursday by their parliamentary groups, Germany's main political parties -- the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Free Democrats and the Greens -- said they would reject the current compromise proposal.
"The German Bundestag expects that any compromise would advance the goal of whale protection and would also open up the perspective of the total end of commercial whale hunting," the statement reads. "The end of commercial whale hunting must come, at the latest, at the end of a transition period."
In addition, the Bundestag is demanding that quotas not be permitted for endangered whale species, that whaling cannot be conducted in protected areas and that there is a sharp reduction from current levels in the number of whales being hunted. The parliamentary groups are also demanding that countries be prevented from using "scientific use" as justification for whale hunting, should that not be the real reason.
'Conference Won't Be a Waterloo for Whale Protection'
Wildlife protection groups praised the statement. "Now we have hope that the whaling conference won't prove to be a Waterloo for whale protection," Sandra Altherr of the conservation group Pro Wildlife said in a statement. The Pro Wildlife leader described IWC's proposal as a "lazy compromise" and said it would eliminate decades of success in whale protection initiatives.
Still, the government of Australia has one-upped the German parliament. Two weeks ago, it filed a suit with the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Australia is suing for an injunction to stop Japan from harpooning in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. In its application for instituting proceedings, the Australian government said that the currently proposed IWC processes will not solve the legal dispute between Australia and Japan.
So far, the ICJ hasn't made a decision on whether it will take the case. Nevertheless, conservationists have praised the Australian initiative.
"Finally a government has moved beyond threatening gestures," said Entrup. "That was long overdue."