Last Thursday, which was (some might say ironically) Earth Day, a fleet of Japanese harpoon boats left on their springtime whale hunt. That same day, the International Whaling Commission, which manages whale populations worldwide, proposed partially lifting a decades-old ban on commercially hunting the marine mammals. That plan would allow Japan, Iceland, and Norway—which have steadfastly ignored the ban anyway—to engage in limited whaling, which supporters say is necessary to bring these nations in line and ensure less whales are killed. Critics call the notion ridiculous. “Let’s legalize whaling to save the whales?” says Paul Watson, head of the non-profit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. “This will result in more whales being killed, not less.”
Conscious of dwindling populations, the 88-member IWC placed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, while still allowing a limited indigenous hunt (Canada is not an IWC member, but attends meetings as an observer). No provisions exist for policing the ban, and the three rogue IWC members have continued so-called “loophole whaling.”
Iceland and Norway say they object to the ban, so they don’t have to abide by it; Japan claims to kill whales in the name of science, researching “whale predation on fishery resources” before selling the meat for consumption. “Yes, there’s a moratorium, but only in concept,” says one close observer, who asked not to be named. “Whaling hasn’t ended. This is commercial whaling.”
Despite a dwindling market for whale meat, domestic and cultural pressures—Japan, for one, has aggressively defended sovereignty over its fishing rights—have seen whaling nations increase self-imposed quotas, meaning more whales are killed each year. In 1990, about 300 were harvested through loophole whaling; this year, it will be closer to 3,000 if current quotas are met. The issue has created gridlock at the IWC, as member nations argue about the hunt while ignoring other pressing threats to the whale population, like climate change or pollution. The IWC had to re-examine the ban, observers say, or risk irrelevancy.
Last week, the organization unveiled a “peace plan” that would allow whalers to hunt on a limited basis. Quotas were set: for example, Japan, which now aims for about 900 whales on Antarctic hunts, would be limited to 400 minke whales and 10 fin whales next season; the numbers would later be halved. International observers would be on board vessels, and a DNA registry would be created to track meat caught or sold illegally. The proposal, which isn’t yet official, will be debated at an IWC conference in June. “We don’t believe that continuing to argue about it will work,” Monica Medina, U.S. commissioner to the IWC, told Maclean’s. “We need a solution.”
Environmentalists were predictably enraged, with one calling it a “whaler’s wish list.” While some populations, like the minke, are considered stable, others, like the fin, are endangered. “To be commercially hunting whales is inexcusable,” says Christopher Cutter, spokesperson for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Allowing the three who “flout” the moratorium to engage in a legitimate hunt “rewards bad behaviour.” What’s more, he worries the IWC proposal threatens to revive a dying industry. “This doesn’t have a lot to do with protecting whales,” he says. “It has more to do with saving the IWC, and it’s dubious it will even do that.”
Others call it a necessary compromise. “Some whaling will be the price to pay for the reduction in the number of whales killed,” IWC chair Cristian Maquieira, a Chilean, told the Washington Post. But even some IWC members voiced dissatisfaction with it. “New Zealanders will not accept this,” said Foreign Minister Murray McCully, while Japan promised to push for larger harvest numbers: “We want to continue negotiating with patience,” said Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu.
Japan’s recent expedition began just days after its Antarctic hunt ended—a hunt spoiled, in large part, by Watson and his team. Just 507 whales (506 minke and one fin) were harvested, about half of Japan’s quota. Whalers blamed their poor showing on Sea Shepherd activists, who pelted them with rotten butter bombs, red paint, and giant crocodile-shaped sponges. “We saved more whales than they killed,” says Watson, a blustery Canadian who appears on the Animal Planet TV show Whale Wars. (Still, Sea Shepherd lost a $2-million speedboat after a collision with a whaling vessel, and had one of its captains, New Zealander Peter Bethune, arrested.)
Sea Shepherd’s tactics might seem controversial, but in Watson’s mind there are no other options. “The IWC has these regulations, but there’s no one enforcing them,” he says. “We’re the only organization that does.” Which is exactly, some say, why new regulations are needed. When the IWC kicks off its June meeting, Watson will be there; but he’ll be sitting outside the negotiation room. His organization is banned, he says, from attending.