Harpoons Fly as Pro-Whaling and Antiwhaling Nations Fight Over 'Scientific Whaling'

Appealing for objectivity, the chair and vice-chair of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) are asking the organization's 88 member nations via a press release to give their draft peace plan a "fair reading." IWC is deeply divided between pro- and antiwhaling nations, and the plan, released in late April, is an effort to bridge that gulf. But several members of IWC's Scientific Committee have publicly criticized the proposal, saying that it is not based on science; and not a single country has stepped forward to support it.

The appeal doesn't seem to have changed many minds. "It's startling and a desperate gambit to counter the valid criticisms and concerns about the proposal," says Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. "They're trying to muscle it through." Most troubling to conservation organizations and the IWC's Scientific Committee, the proposal suggests quotas for whales that are not based on the committee's calculations for managing sustainable cetacean populations. "The various numbers that are currently being bandied about" emphasize "the importance of keeping to the rule that the Scientific Committee is the authority" and should be the only body calculating any such quotas, says Justin Cooke, a mathematical modeler and committee member in Freiburg, Germany, who represents the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In their statement, the chair and vice-chair argue that the plan will ultimately reduce the number of whales being killed and will put IWC once again in charge of whaling, without ending the organization's 25-year-old whaling ban.

IWC enacted this whaling moratorium in 1986, but three member nations—Japan, Norway, and Iceland—have continued to hunt whales, using various IWC-allowed loopholes including "scientific whaling." The trio of countries set their own quotas for the whales they harpoon and have increased their catch annually. Last year, these countries killed about 1700 whales, up from 300 in 1990. There are no international rules to limit or regulate this whaling, the chair and vice-chair note in their appeal.

"We tried to come up with a plan that will let the IWC take control of the whaling that is already going on," Chair Cristian Maquieira says. "It was an absolutely impossible task, and everybody is unhappy with our proposal. But they need to look at it more dispassionately."

Other IWC members, such as Australia, and several conservation organizations have long lobbied for a complete end to commercial whaling in any form. Australia has threatened to take Japan to court for whaling in the Antarctic's Southern Ocean Sanctuary, an IWC-designated whale preserve.

Under the proposed compromise, however, IWC would allow Japan to continue to hunt minke whales in that sanctuary-but IWC, instead of Japan, would set the quota. The draft plan recommends a lower limit for these minke whales than what Japan currently takes. In exchange for killing fewer of these minkes, Japan would also be permitted to hunt a limited number of endangered fin whales in the sanctuary, as well as minke whales in its own coastal waters. Many cetacean experts think this coastal minke population is in trouble, because Japan currently takes about 120 annually as by-catch. IWC would also provide quotas for Japan to harpoon Bryde's and sei whales, as well as for Norway and Iceland which hunt minke and fin whales.

Despite the plan's rejections, Maquieira is not disheartened. That simply means that "we are probably not far off the correct balance," says Maquieira in IWC's recent statement. Negotiations are continuing. Member nations will vote on the plan-or a version of it--in late June at the organization's annual meeting, held this year in Agadir, Morocco.