It’s somewhat ironic. At a time when New Zealand anti-whaling and Sea Shepherd Society activist Peter Bethune is living on cabbage soup in a Tokyo prison, New Zealand – a traditionally anti-whaling country – is proposing to strike a deal allowing quotas for pro-whaling countries such as Japan and Norway.
According to their logic, Japan and Norway will continue to hunt whales regardless of international pressure and the rather toothless International Whaling Commission (IWC) regulations. This is clearly shown by their increasing annual catch numbers.
Therefore, the best alternative may be a compromise: try to agree on realistic quotas.
New Zealand’s former Prime Minister and IWC representative Sir Geoffrey Palmer believes agreeing to limited catch quotas is the only way of gaining some control over the process.
Together Japan, Iceland and Norway hunt more than 2,000 whales each year (of which some species are considered ‘at risk’, although this is hotly debated).
The Japanese position is strongly entrenched in a continuation of ‘sustainable’ whaling. At present they use a known loop hole in the IWC rules to hunt whales for so called ‘research purposes’. They actually do the research, but they also take the meat and sell it commercially.
Whale meat is not considered everyday eating in Japan or even a delicacy. It did prevent the population from starving after World War II, but a 2006 survey by the Nippon Research Centre states that 95% of Japanese people have either never eaten, or very rarely eat whale meat.
So why are they holding on to it so tightly?
There is some suggestion it’s an objection to being told what to do, but more likely it's a fear that a whaling ban could lead to further fisheries controls. After all, the consumption of fish underpins the Japanese diet and contributes greatly to the country’s economy.
Both Norway and Iceland also continue to hunt whales commercially. Norway lodged an objection with the IWC and then simply continued whaling. Iceland left the organisation altogether.
If you include Denmark’s indigenous application to the IWC, European countries took more Whales than Japan in 2009.
New Zealand’s compromise position has been met with criticism from within the country and in neighbouring Australia who have said they won’t support a quota agreement.
In fact, they’ve stated they will take Japan to the International Court of Justice if their whaling operations for research purposes in the Southern Ocean don’t stop by November this year.
Japan has publicly labelled this pending legal action “unfortunate” but has not expressed any intention of ceasing their whaling activities.
If taken to the International Court, New Zealand’s Palmer believes Japan will actually have a strong case. This is because although Japan is effectively taking advantage of a loop hole, they also conduct and publish their research according to the rules.
However, New Zealand and Australia have just finished their own ‘non-lethal’ research expedition and are claiming that the Japanese can conduct their ‘research’ without actually killing whales.
It will be interesting to see if this court threat becomes a reality and if the proposed quota agreements would have any impact on the case.
The current quota talks have a deadline of this Thursday (April 22) when a submission needs to be made to the IWC in time for the organisation’s annual meeting in June.
New Zealand maintains the intention of a quota agreement is to significantly reduce whale catches. But will they be able to agree on a magic figure?
Japan, via their own lethal research program, has done considerable and in-depth research on whale populations and will no doubt argue for higher catches, especially where certain species are deemed more plentiful.
However, an agreement that could partly legitimise their whaling activities in the eyes of the international community could motivate them to accept a lower figure.
Palmer has warned that if these current negotiations fail, there is a risk that the IWC could collapse leaving no whaling controls at all.
So the reality appears that even though banning whaling might be a great idea, pro-whaling countries simply won’t comply.
Therefore, an agreed compromise that sets reasonable quotas is probably the only thing that is likely to reduce catch numbers.
However the whale of a question remains – can such a deal even be struck? We will see in June.
By Lenska Papich