Whales for sale

Feature story - July 22, 2004
Pity poor whaling nations like Japan. They are so alone on this issue, and their arguments for whaling are so thin, that they need to buy friends and supporters in their desperate attempt to resume the commercial slaughter of the world's most impressive mammals.

Greenpeace volunteers sail to mark the launch of the IWC (International Whaling Commission) opening in Sorrento , Italy this week

Since 1987, the Japanese government has conducted an annual whale hunt in the Antarctic under the guise of "scientific" whaling. It has also embarked on a dodgy vote-buying scheme to shift the balance of power at the world body that controls whaling - the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Now Japan has gone one step further and threatened to go and find its own pro-whaling friends if it can't get its own way at the IWC. Nice try but no cigar.

Let's first look at this vote-buying scam. Since the Japanese government seemingly can't play well with others in the oceans playground, Japan has had to buy friends. Basically, it offers fisheries aid to poor coastal countries in exchange for their support of Japan's whaling policies. Kind of like throwing lunch money around to avoid being the loser in the schoolyard.

Japan has managed to convince a few of the small kids it's a good idea though, it has bought 16 friends at the IWC in this way, including six eastern Caribbean states (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Kitts and Nevis), the Solomon Islands and Guinea. All of these countries regularly attend IWC meetings and speak in favour of a resumption of commercial whaling, voting with Japan on all occasions. In fact Antigua's former prime minister was pretty open about the whole deal. "I make no bones about it ... if we are able to support the Japanese and the quid pro quo is that they are going to give us some assistance ... that is part of why we do so," he said in 2001.

As a result of this strategy Japan has already been able to block measures at the IWC. Last year this minority prevented the creation of a South Pacific Whale Sanctuary (SPWS), largely due to the votes cast against the proposal by Japan and the eastern Caribbean countries.

Something fishy

The plot thickens when we look at just how much "lunch money" Japan's so-called friends are getting. The construction budgets of some of the relevant fisheries projects have been judged by economists as greater than could be justified by the actual facilities being built. Interestingly, the facilities were also commonly located in the constituencies of influential politicians ... and not according to any plan for the development of the fisheries sector.

Now, after they realise that their little friends at the IWC can't be guaranteed to support them if they don't cough up the lunch money, Panama being the most recent example, Japan is once again threatening to pack up and go and find its real friends - in a new pro-whaling alliance. It also says in any case it may withhold part of its subscription to the IWC, in protest at its conservation work. In reality it's a bit like threatening to take your ball home if you don't like the rules of the game.

Japan has also invested heavily in a public relations offensive designed to convince the public that whaling is culturally and economically important to Japan, and that whales eat too many fish and threaten the conservation of fish stocks - a claim for which there is absolutely no scientific basis.

The truth is that whale meat is a luxury food in Japan. Whale meat may have been an important source of protein in an impoverished Japan after World War Two, but it has become a gourmet food over the last few decades.

Weird science

Japan also continually tries to convince everyone that it's good in science class - "scientific" whaling is ok, right? However in 2002 it announced its intention to hunt sei whales which are endangered. Not to mention the fact that its "research" is decidedly dubious - "by-products" of the research are sold at a profit, and it has been conducting the same "research" on the same whale species for over 10 years! These facts have been recognised by the US government and various members of the IWC. In fact, the whole purpose of their "research" appears to be to promote whaling. They have even said it themselves: "Data from the hunt will be used in whale population and migration studies to build a case for "resuming use of this natural resource," said a statement from the Institute of Cetacean Research, the government-affiliated centre in charge of the program. One of their main arguments is that whales are the cause of depletion of fish stocks and therefore should be culled. However, far from being the cause of such depletion, whales and other cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoises are the victims of overfishing - it upsets the marine ecosystems, removes food sources, and, even worse, threatens accidental death through entanglement in fishing gear and trawler nets.

In 2003 the IWC's Scientific Committee estimated that bycatch (the incidental capture of cetaceans in fishing gear) could be killing 300,000 cetaceans a year. Some species and populations, such as the North Atlantic right whale, the baiji, the vaquita, and Western Pacific population of gray whale, are likely to become biologically extinct this century unless drastic action is taken to address the environmental threats responsible.

Sadly, if the present schoolyard bullying and dodgy vote buying trend goes unchecked, the IWC will once again sanction commercial whaling, putting the world's remaining whales at risk.

Read more

BBC News: Whales 'absolved' on fish stocks

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