In a warehouse-like hall in a hotel on the island of Jersey in the English Channel, several hundred people have gathered this week for the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission.
This is my first time at one of these meetings, and it’s a bit of an eye-opener.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is an odd beast. And it’s a full ten years since the meeting last set foot on UK soil. So there are some hopes that this year’s meeting will be useful, but there are also a lot of worries that the IWC is so mired with difficulties that progress might well be elusive.
Sixty-odd years ago the IWC was set up as effectively a ‘whalers’ club’, where governments would get together to regulate the world’s whaling industry. In many ways that was ground-breaking stuff, and at that time countries like the UK, US, Argentina, Russia and many others were happily hunting whales for commercial reasons. Fast forward a few decades and things are very different. We know now that the 20th century saw the wholesale destruction of most of the world’s large whale species because of relentless commercial whaling. And we now live in what appears a very different world. There is a moratorium on commercial whaling, and it is illegal for the most part, to trade in many whale products. Most countries have moved from being whale hunters to be whale protectors, reflecting the widespread public view that whales are worth more to us alive than they are dead. Tourists now embrace a different way of shooting whales - with their cameras.
But at the same time the amount of threats we humans pose to whales has increased beyond belief - climate change, fishing nets, plastic pollution, ship strikes, and oil and gas extraction are just a few of the dangers today’s whales face. With so much else to focus on, one cannot help but wonder why the IWC spends quite so much of its time engaged in entrenched battles for and against the continued commercial whaling, that happens through loopholes and political defiance, with little chance to move forward on that issue, let alone address the other problems.
Then there’s the strangeness of the IWC and how its meetings and membership is allowed to work, as exposed last year so ably by London's Sunday Times.
Which brings us back to this year’s meeting.
There are a few things on the table to be discussed like the proposal to create a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, and there are some big question marks over who will actually turn up to participate (today’s meeting opened with the news that some 21 Member countries have not paid their dues and are unable to vote, even if they do attend…), and whether Japan’s early exit from the Southern Ocean this year is the beginning of the end of Antarctic whaling.
But the big news is likely to be the humble proposal from the UK’s own minister, Richard Benyon. I’m not being dismissive, this is not an incendiary idea designed to set the heather on fire, it is a very practical suggestion on tidying up how the IWC conducts itself. It, in itself, might not be a guarantee to save any whales this week, but what it is designed to do is drag the outdated IWC into the real world, so that it can operate in a transparent and accountable way.
It’s about time, frankly. Nowhere else would this even be being discussed, but at the IWC the pro-whaling nations are likely to put up a fight on even this issue, preferring the dysfunctional status quo.
And in the midst of this week’s meeting our Greenpeace Japan colleagues Junichi and Toru (the ‘Tokyo Two') will find out the result of their appeal for being convicted for uncovering embezzlement in the Japanese whaling industry. We’ll let you know as soon as we have news.
Greenpeace Executive Director Junichi Sato, one of the "Tokyo Two," enters the High Court past a banner which reads in Japanese 'We can not concede our right to know', at the appeal hearing in Sendai, Japan on 24 May. © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Greenpeace
So we’ll be here all week, letting you know what is happening, and lobbying the politicians and country representatives present to stand up for the whales and what civil society expects
Maybe, just maybe, the UK Minister will succeed in bringing the IWC out of the dark ages. We will be doing everything we can to make sure that happens. Because only by reforming the way the IWC works can we all get on with the job of actually dealing with the threats our whale populations face.
Willie Mackenzie is an oceans campaigner based in Greenpeace UK's London office