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The Guardian 4 February, 2009

A whale of a compromise

Peter Mac

The Rudd government has been involved in drafting a proposed agreement under which whaling by Japanese vessels would be allowed to continue.

Under the agreement, which is contained in a discussion paper submitted to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Japan would either cease whaling in the Southern Ocean or accept an annual limit for whales taken in that area, but would be allowed to kill more Minke whales in its own waters and increase its overall catch of whales in the North Pacific. In remarkable "double-speak" the agreement declares that the current moratorium on whaling would "remain in effect".

The proposal ignores the fact that whales are migratory, and that their numbers are threatened just as much by whale hunts on an increased scale in the North Pacific as they are at the current level in both the North and South Pacific. Patrick Ramage, a representative of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, commented bitterly:

"The proposal being put forward by the working group of the IWC is not to end scientific whaling by the government of Japan. It’s simply to export it (and to) make an arrangement whereby Japan could kill an equal number of whales in waters of the North Pacific."

The killing of these magnificent marine mammals has long been a matter of international controversy, and most countries, including Australia, had closed down their whaling industries by the 1960s. A moratorium on the slaughter of whales was imposed by the 84-member IWC in 1986. Japan responded by declaring that its whale hunts were for "scientific" rather than commercial purposes, even though the whale meat is openly sold on the commercial market.

Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research (JICR) recently admitted that whaling crews had killed a mother and baby whale, but declared quite calmly that "Our research program requires random sampling of the Antarctic population, and therefore there will be a range of sizes".

Nicola Beynon, campaign director of the Humane Society International replied that the "research" claims are baseless. "They bring along the stats on the number of calf, pregnant mothers, males, females, how big their eyeballs were, whatever, but there is never any analysis."

The IWC meetings have become extremely tense, as Japan and a small number of supporters have argued for the moratorium to be lifted. Japan has threatened to leave the IWC, and to unilaterally extend its slaughter of Minke whales to include humpback whales. The Japanese whaling fleet is currently in the Southern Ocean and aims to catch 900 whales this season.

Oz equivocation

With regard to the proposed agreement Environment Minister Peter Garrett has stated that "They are not matters which Australia has endorsed."

Nevertheless, Australian representatives were involved in the drafting of the proposal. The Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has not ruled out acceptance of the agreement, merely commenting that the government is "a long way" from accepting the deal. Although he reiterated the government’s general opposition to whaling he noted that its priority was for the Japanese to cease whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Last year, the Rudd government took a series of photographs (described contemptuously by the JICR as "emotional propaganda") of Japanese crews killing whales. The photos were said to be used as evidence in a proposed international legal case against Japanese whaling, to be launched by the Australian government. However, in response to a freedom of information application, the government blocked the release of the photographs, on the grounds that it could damage Australia’s relationship with Japan.

A memo from the US State Department written last November, claimed that an Australian envoy, Sandy Hollway, "…stated Rudd’s desire to find a way forward that (1) reduced the total take of whales in the Southern Ocean, and (2) helped prevent a ‘blow-up’ in the IWC negotiations." The memo added approvingly "We believe Australia’s proposal reflects a major move forward in Australian whaling policy and shows openings for negotiations that were unimaginable even a year earlier."

The way forward

The Rudd government’s contradictory and ambivalent approach to the whaling issue resembles its other environmental policies. In the case of emissions reduction, the PM’s mindset of "avoiding the extremes of left and right" has resulted in a commitment of a contemptible 5 percent reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide by 2020, rather than the scientific recommendation of a twenty percent minimum. With regard to the whaling issue it looks as though the government will not even aim for a fraction of an improvement.

A more serious and effective approach has been taken by the environmental organisation Greenpeace, which has opened up a communication centre in the northern Japanese fishing district of Aomori.

The Japanese whaling industry is subsidised to the tune of about AU$8.6 million per annum. According to Greenpeace, a recent opinion poll taken in Japan revealed that 71 percent of respondents want an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean. The Greenpeace Communication Centre is intended to improve the understanding of the brutality and huge scale of the Japanese whaling industry, and its impact on whales and other marine life.

Japanese whaling has also been seriously inhibited by the activities of the environmental activist ship, the Sea Shepherd, which at great risk to members of its crew has physically blocked whaling activity by Japanese vessels.

In comparison, the Rudd government has used some fine words in criticism of the Japanese position, but its response to the new IWC proposal looks like being a sell-out of the whales, and the international anti-whaling movement.

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