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Remember the 80s? Let's save the whale again

The decision to resume commercial whaling needs to be fought with real vigour, says Mark Carwardine

A cruel and pointless task? (Putneymark)

How have we allowed the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to endorse the idea of commercial whaling for the first time in 20 years? It’s absolutely scandalous.

The most recent meeting, held in St Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, was a disaster. It was encumbered by the usual mix of intolerance, lies, insults and dirty deals, but will always be remembered for the so-called St Kitts Declaration. This dreadful resolution called for the eventual return of commercial whaling and was approved by a vote of 33 to 32 (with one member – China – abstaining).

Some conservation groups described the vote as a ‘wake-up call’. But it’s far worse than that. As New Zealand’s environment minister, Chris Carter, said: “This is the most serious defeat the conservation cause has ever suffered at the IWC.”

When the IWC agreed on an indefinite moratorium on commercial whaling, more than 20 years ago, we all celebrated – the whales had been saved. But we were wrong – they hadn’t. Commercial whaling never actually stopped. Whalers have killed at least 28,000 whales since the moratorium began in 1986 and now our efforts to stop the slaughter are unravelling fast.

Cruel and pointless

I have been photographing, studying and watching whales since the early 1980s and firmly believe that commercial whaling is unacceptable in the 21st century. It is intrinsically cruel (there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea); most stocks are too low for large-scale commercial hunting to be sustainable; demand for whale meat is low and declining; and whale-watching is a far more enlightened (and ultimately profitable) way to earn money from whales. Many governments, and millions of people around the world, feel the same way.

Thankfully, the St Kitts Declaration doesn’t mean that the whaling moratorium will be abolished (that would take a 75% majority) but it does mark a significant shift in the balance of power. And the real scandal is that Japan’s control of the IWC was bought, not won. Much of the whaling debate these days focuses on the accusation that Japan has been offering developing nations fisheries aid in return for IWC votes. And it seems to have worked, because nations with no interest in whaling– some of them land-locked – are now voting on the future of the world’s gentle giants.

So what can be done? I think conservationists and anti-whaling nations have no choice but to play Japan at its own game. We must stop tiptoeing around: only drastic measures will save the whales.

First, we need a determined effort to encourage more sympathetic nations to sign up to the IWC. There is no reason why some of our own fisheries aid couldn’t come with an anti-whaling price tag, for example, and we could offer advice and funding to help potential members establish lucrative whalewatching industries.

The European Union is another natural recruitment ground. Seventeen members belong to the IWC already and all bar one (Denmark) are anti-whaling. Perhaps membership of the EU could come with an anti-whaling price tag, too?

Second, we must tackle the nations that have already been bought by Japan. A pro-whaling policy sits uneasily with many of them and it is likely that some could be persuaded to reverse their pro-whaling positions. Local conservationists have already persuaded Belize and Panama to do just that.

Rising death toll

Meanwhile, whichever way the votes fall, the slaughter continues to escalate. In the next 12 months Japan’s Antarctic whaling fleet will be killing up to 935 minke whales and ten fin whales in Antarctica, as well as 220 minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 100 sei whales and ten sperm whales in the north Pacific. We are on a very slippery slope. We cannot stand by and watch as Japan forces a return to full-scale commercial whaling.

Mark Carwardine is an award-winning wildlife writer, broadcaster and photographer

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