The world is starting to look a bit safer for whales. While the largest inhabitants of the cetacean nation mind their own business in the oceans' depths, their human supporters are hailing the International Whaling Commission's shift toward a solidly conservationist agenda. At a Berlin conference last week, the IWC once a bastion of an industry now worth only about $50 million (compared to whale-related tourism's estimated $1.5 billion) agreed for the first time to establish a conservation committee. Its task: to advise the IWC on potential threats to marine mammals from pollution, sonar gear, ships, global warming even whale watching itself. Environmentalists see it as a landmark step. "They're moving out of the old mindset that everything has to be killed into the more embracing notion that the earth is getting smaller and smaller and we have to treat all our resources with more care," says Patricia Forkan, executive vice president of the Humane Society International.
But the so-called Berlin Initiative infuriates as many as it pleases. Pro-whaling nations, led by Japan, Iceland and Norway, decry the IWC's gradual transformation from a small forum of whaling nations founded in 1946 to a 51-member, broad-based organization. "The IWC was set up for whaling," says Stefan Asmundsson, head of the commission's Icelandic delegation. "It's very clear that conservation is part of it, but conservation is there to ensure the continuation of whaling. It's a means to an end."
Like so many environmental battlegrounds, the fight over whales is an endless tangle of emotive issues wrapped up with national pride, cultural values and economic interests. And the IWC has been so fiercely and evenly divided that for decades, stasis has been the rule.
The battle has been raging at least since 1986, when an IWC moratorium on commercial whaling took effect. It was intended to allow recovery and assessment of whale populations, but was never airtight: Norway filed a timely objection and, under IWC rules, continues its whale hunts. Japan conducts "scientific" catches also permitted under the rules but some of the meat has turned up in markets. Iceland went so far as to quit the IWC in 1992, protesting the moratorium. It rejoined last October a move that Italy, Mexico and New Zealand, citing proce- dural flaws, still reject.
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This time around, familiar battles led to familiar outcomes. Japan was denied permission to begin new "scientific" whaling operations in which 300 more whales would be taken because the IWC believed it would be thinly disguised hunting. Iceland recently announced an intention to return to commercial whaling by 2006 following a "scientific" kill of 500 whales over a two-year span. The commission slapped down the idea after its scientific committee found the proposal "deficient in almost every respect."
But the environmentalists, too, had difficulty in some areas. Proposals for two new whale sanctuaries, in the South Atlantic and the South Pacific, were shot down again. Such moves require the support of three-fourths of voting members rather than a simple majority. "It's a very high hoop to have to jump through," says Margi Prideaux, Australian director of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
But the breakthrough came in the bold new Mexican-led Berlin Initiative co-sponsored by 12 anti-whaling European countries, plus Kenya, Brazil, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Its architect, Andrés Rozental, a former Deputy Foreign Minister and ex-ambassador to the U.K., had mobilized support from "like- minded" countries and signing up southern hemisphere nations was crucial. "The notion that comes from Japan, that it's just the rich north that wants to protect whales and dolphins, is nonsense," says Richard Page, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace. "Developing countries have been taking a hard look at the situation and are realizing the importance of protecting these resources."
Will the committee have real teeth? Too often bureaucracies set up panels to deflect disputes rather than resolve them. It's too soon to tell for the IWC; its new unit has yet to get organized. Defeated pro-whalers are still grousing. But despite dark hints last week that it might now rethink its IWC membership, Japan like Iceland is likely to stay and fight. While the waters may have got chillier at the IWC, neither nation wishes to become a pariah or a pirate.