The Global Battle over the Whales Will Commercial Whaling Soon Become Legal?
This week an international conference is set to rule on whether commercial whaling should be legalized for the next decade. For years now, countries that hunt the massive sea creatures, like Japan, have made an outright ban on whaling impossible. Many are hoping a new compromise could open the door for a permanent ban on whaling in 10 years.
"The red tide now poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill. His tormented body rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men."
-- Herman Melville, "Moby Dick"
Blood can be seen, a great deal of blood -- frothy sea water, a writhing gray body; the tailfin slaps the water, one last time, followed by silence. A winch pulls the dead animal up the ramp -- into the finality of the factory ship.
The ramp and the factory ship are technological advances of the modern age. Otherwise the whale dies exactly as it did nearly 160 years ago, when Melville's "Moby Dick" was first published. Environmental activists like those with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society disseminate new images of the slaughter every year. The footage usually shows Japanese whalers who resemble ghostly apparitions of the diabolical Captain Ahab and his men. But Icelandic and Norwegian fishermen also continue to hunt the giants of the deep -- despite a worldwide moratorium on all commercial whaling.
Yet humans also have another, softer way of treating cetaceans -- as observed during whale watching tours. Tourists go wild at the sight of these rough-skinned giants covered with barnacles, such as the lagoons along the coast of Baja California in Mexico, where the California gray whales -- which reach lengths of up to 14 meters (46 feet) -- seem extraordinarily friendly and frolic delightfully close to the boats. People squeal with pleasure and lean out dangerously over the ship's side in a fleeting attempt to touch the animals; some tourists suddenly break into song, a few even shed tears.
Mankind hates whales or reveres them, slaughters them or strokes them -- that is apparently the immutable dialectic for the way in which Homo sapiens interact with the giants of the sea. No other creature on Earth is capable of driving people to such extremes.
Now a decision is pending that will determine how humans will treat the great marine mammals in the future. It's possible that the final judgment will be made this week.
On Monday the International Whaling Commission (IWC) convened in the Moroccan city of Agadir. Delegates attending from 88 countries are debating the fate of the whales. They will squabble, cheat and haggle. This is a standard procedure at international conferences and it all looks like business as usual. Cristian Maquieira also thinks that everything could still work out. "I'm optimistic," says the Chilean chairman of the IWC, "because I have the impression that people basically want to reach an agreement."
A War of Words
That is precisely the question. Whaling countries and anti-whaling countries are more irreconcilable in their positions than on virtually any other controversial environmental issue. What will happen this week is the political and diplomatic equivalent of the battles that the Sea Shepherds' warriors have been waging against the Japanese whaling fleet on the high seas for years: with water cannons, stink bombs, pepper spray and ropes to damage propellers. Ships are rammed and boarded and sometimes lives are put at risk. A Sea Shepherd activist has been jailed in Japan and state prosecutors there are calling for one-and-a-half years in prison for two Greenpeace members, officially on charges of stealing whale meat -- in reality, though, they have exposed a bribery scandal in the Japanese whaling fleet.
A war of words will be fought in Agadir -- and this war at the convention hotel is already overshadowed by its end because even the best possible outcome means that additional thousands of whales will die.
The emissaries will be debating a compromise paper with the mundane title "IWC/62/7". In this document, IWC chair Maquieira and his deputy Anthony Liverpool propose once again to officially allow commercial whaling, which has actually been subject to a worldwide ban since 1986.
The text was released in late April and has been sending shockwaves through the international whale protection community ever since. All around the world, politicians are up in arms and representatives of wildlife conservation organizations are outraged. The return of officially sanctioned commercial whaling is a "disaster," according to John Frizell, who coordinates the whale campaigns for Greenpeace International.
In the IWC chairman's home country, Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno has publicly distanced himself from Maquieira. Two weeks ago on Thursday, the German parliament, the Bundestag, rejected the IWC compromise by an overwhelming majority -- and most EU environment ministers have taken the same position.
It may sound paradoxical, but in reality Maquieira wants to save the whales with his license to kill. If the commission gives the official green light to commercial whaling -- which is still practiced despite the current ban -- it could get the situation under control, at least that's the logic behind the proposal. Then, with time, the IWC could save an increasing number of animals from being harpooned -- and after 10 years, finally put an end to the slaughter.
"We are trying to get people to no longer be for or against whaling," says Maquieira, "but to be pro-whale."
- Part 1: Will Commercial Whaling Soon Become Legal?
- Part 2: 'Today the IWC Has No Control over Whaling'
- Part 3: Japan Defends 'Scientific' Whaling
- Part 4: The Alternative: Whalewatching