Japan and the whaling lobby have finally won a simple majority vote at the 58th meeting of International Whaling Commission (IWC), held on the Caribbean island of St Kitts in June. 33 countries voted in favour of a resolution called the "St Kitts declaration" claiming that the "IWC has failed to meet its obligations under the terms of the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW)" and declaring its commitment to "normalizing the functions of the IWC" - in other words, returning the organisation to its original hunting mandate.
The main thrust of the Japanese resolution focused on 'food security', in effect the idea that fish stocks are declining because whales are consuming too many of them. This spurious claim has no scientific basis, given that whales are an integral part of an ocean food chain which has had a stable existence for thousands of years until recently being upset by the real culprit - massive overfishing by humans.
"Greenpeace is disgusted that any member of the IWC would seek to promote whaling based upon the false notion that whales consume so much fish that they are a threatto food security for coastal nations, that a resolution has passed by a simple majority makes a mockery of the Commission in giving a dangerous lie a thin veneer of respectability," said Mike Townsley, our press officer at the IWC.
While this feels like a setback for whale conservationists - what does it actually deliver for the whalers? In the short term, very little. They had already lost four important votes, aimed at: ending any IWC work on dolphin and porpoise conservation; introducing secret ballots; an exemption from the commercial whaling ban to kill minke Whales and Brydes whales inside their territorial waters; and revoking the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Any of these would have made a real and immediate difference to cetacean conservation, but none were successful.
What it does mean is that the huge amount of time and money Japan has spent over the past decade buying support among poor nations using economic aid as an incentive has finally paid off, temporarily at least. Greenpeace has warned the anti-whaling nations to treat the result as a 'wake up call', and confirmed our intention to return to the Southern Ocean this year to continue opposition to Japan's 'scientific hunting' programme, which will target 935 minke whales and ten endangered fin whales.
The moratorium on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986 when research showed that many species were being decimated, Japan, Norway and Iceland have exploited loopholes in the legislation to allow 'scientific' whaling. Between them they kill around 2,000 whales a year in the name of spurious science - although the meat from these kills is sold commercially.
Japan's victory is a wake up call for the world's anti-whaling governments
Following this Japanese victory, the consequences for the world's remaining whale populations could be serious, but not yet devastating. This was a wake up call for the world's anti-whaling governments for failing to effectively oppose Japan's hostile take-over of the IWC - we now need high-level political action from anti-whaling countries to continue defend the interests of whales.
Some of the governments that helped enact the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary (1994) and moratorium on commercial whaling (1986) have, in fact, spoken out against Japan. This past year 17 nations (including Brazil, Australia and the UK) issued a strongly worded diplomatic demarche pointing out:
"Japan is now killing more whales in the Antarctic every year than it killed for scientific research in the 31 years prior to the introduction of the moratorium on commercial whaling."
The governments further expressed "grave concerns" that the ongoing hunt, "will undermine the long-term viability," of both fin and humpback whales.
Unfortunately even this strong diplomatic action, which was combined with ministerial level visits to some new IWC members, was not enough this year to prevent Japan winning at least one important vote. The reality is that the Japanese government has chosen to spend more money and political capital on whaling than the governments who favour protecting whales. There is on some levels probably a disbelief that the whalers can win back control of the IWC - intuitively it just doesn't make sense considering the mess they made of it before sanity prevailed in the early eighties. But for years now the warning signs have been clear. Although the whalers' success was limited at this year's meeting, they now have a victory under their belt which will encourage them to keep on trying. The "St Kitts declaration" must now act as a wake up call for the conservation minded governments of the world.