At the 59th International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting held this May in Anchorage, Alaska, pro-whaling nations were expected to bristle with confidence gained from the simple majority they achieved briefly at last year’s meeting. But the 2007 gathering was anticipated anxiously by both sides of the whaling debate, since all of the aboriginal subsistence quotas, including Alaska’s own, were up for their 5-year renewal. Participants were leery of a repeat of the 2002 meeting, where aboriginal whaling quotas were held hostage by Japan and its allies in an attempt to weaken the US resolve on commercial whaling. Susan Millward, D.J. Schubert and Serda Ozbenian represented the Animal Welfare Institute, pressing the United States not to capitulate on any measure in exchange for the Alaskan bowhead whale quota—as it did with a vote in support of a resumption of Japanese small-type coastal whaling in 2002.
The pro-whaling factions were unusually reasonable and almost conciliatory during the first few days of the meeting, although constant references to reciprocity hinted at an expectation of future payback. Nearly all of the aboriginal whaling quotas, including the one for Alaskan bowhead whales, were approved by consensus. The exceptions were the quotas sought by the Natives of Greenland, who on the final day were denied their request to kill humpback whales, but received approval for a significant increase in the number of minke whales and the addition of bowhead whales to their hunt.
Japan’s anticipated call for reciprocity came to a head on the last day, with a proposed schedule amendment for a resumption of its small-type coastal whaling. Japan has been trying for two decades to get the IWC to sanction commercial whaling for its coastal communities, including Taiji, where the notorious dolphin drive hunts take place. This year’s attempt was deftly tailored to mirror the aboriginal subsistence whaling that Japan and the other pro-whaling nations had been so agreeable to earlier in the meeting.
Japan first tried to remove the term "aboriginal" from the subsistence whaling category. When that initiative failed, it still pursued the subsistence argument for its coastal people, who are not indigenous and do not have subsistence need for whale meat. If successful, the proposal would have resulted in a partial lifting of the moratorium on commercial whaling and had significant ramifications for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The issue resulted in a protracted debate over two days and was finally defeated. Japan then threatened to leave the Commission and was forced to rescind its offer to host the 61st meeting in 2009.
A good deal of discussion at the meeting centered on the future of the currently polarized IWC, which is at an impasse because, despite the moratorium, whales continue to be killed for commercial purposes at an increasing rate through loopholes in the IWC. The pro-whaling factions favor "normalization" of the IWC, taking it back to its origins—which once led to the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of whales and pushed many to the brink of extinction—while others favor "modernization" and the evolution of the IWC into a non-lethal use and whale conservation regime.
The escalating commercial whale killing, the inadequacies of the IWC, and the lack of progress in improving whale-killing methods are deeply troubling. However, we are also concerned that efforts to resolve the perceived impasse may lead to dangerous compromises. There are already rumblings of suggested solutions among traditionally conservation-minded IWC members and observers, including accelerating the development of the Revised Management Scheme (the rules that would guide a reinstated practice of commercial whaling), revisiting the Irish Proposal of the late 1990s that sought to ban high seas whaling and the international trade in whale products in exchange for coastal whaling, and the creation of a whaling-free Southern Hemisphere. An intercessional meeting has been proposed to further the negotiations, and we will attend to ensure that poor compromises are not made.