Swiss see progress on whaling

Whale quotas have been renewed for Native Alaskan communities, for whom whaling plays an important role Keystone

Switzerland has welcomed the "real progress" made at a "stressful but friendly" International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference in Anchorage, Alaska.

This content was published on June 1, 2007 - 11:50

On the final day of the meeting anti-whaling nations succeeded in passing a resolution upholding a 21-year moratorium on commercial whaling.

Once again Switzerland sat between the whale hunters and huggers from 77 nations – nine of which are land-locked – and called for controlled but limited whaling.

"Unlike other years all parties were interested in compromise and discussing in quite a friendly way – even if the positions are quite controversial," Bruno Mainini from the Federal Veterinary Office told swissinfo.

However, it wouldn't be an international whaling conference without serious differences of opinion, and this year Japan stirred things up by arguing that four of its coastal communities should be allowed to hunt minke whales because the tradition is so old that it qualifies as subsistence hunting.

Japan's proposal triggered a long and contentious debate on Wednesday, a day after the IWC had renewed a five-year quota for Alaska Natives and the indigenous people of Chukotka, Russia, to continue the subsistence hunts of bowhead whales.

Japan supported the renewal of aboriginal whaling quotas, but Joji Morishita, Japan's deputy whaling commissioner, asked for "consistency" from the organisation when he raised a proposal to allow hunting of minke whales by four of Japan's small coastal communities.

This was eventually rejected on Thursday, though the commission did approve Greenland's revised proposal to increase its aboriginal quota of minke whales to 200, as well as to hunt fin and bowhead whales.

Mainini considered the renewed quotas for indigenous people "one of the greatest successes" of the conference, adding that the Japanese request was "something we respect and we think it might be something that we could support in the future".

Polar opposites

But Shane Rattenbury from Greenpeace International called the proposal "another example of commercial whaling in disguise".

Morishita acknowledged that had Japan's request been approved, some meat from the minke whales would have been sold.

Japan already kills about a 1,000 whales a year and sells the meat under a scientific research provision allowed by the IWC, which enacted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

Russia supported the proposal, with its delegation saying Japan's traditional whaling was probably twice as old as Arctic whaling.

However, a number of nations voiced strong opposition. New Zealand said the minke proposal was the type of commercial whaling outlawed by the 1986 ban.

The US delegation noted that 360 minke whales are already caught annually in the Sea of Japan and the North Pacific. Of those, 220 are for Japan's scientific research programme and 140 are by-catch.

Both the United States and New Zealand also expressed outrage at Japan's plan to kill 50 humpback whales, an endangered species, as part of its science programme.

Responsibility

Mainini underlined that Switzerland was not against whaling in principle.

"We are totally against scientific whaling and we therefore also supported an adopted resolution asking Japan to stop their research programmes," he said.

"But in the long term we have to accept that there is some whaling, and as long as you have some control with strict measures we can't totally oppose whaling."

As to why Switzerland, which is not known for its high-sea fishing, is involved in the IWC, Mainini says it all comes down to responsibility.

"Nine members are land-locked and I think the reason to be in the IWC is the same for all these countries: there is a common responsibility when it comes to natural resources. The sea is open and not just the property of one single country, and I think all countries have a responsibility to share, protect and manage the resources."

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens with agencies

In brief

The IWC instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. But the group is now bitterly divided between countries that assert all whales need protection and others, such as Japan, that say some species are now abundant enough for limited hunting.

Japan, which also says whaling is a cultural tradition, began scientific research whaling in 1987. The meat, which under commission rules must be sold for consumption, ends up in supermarkets and restaurants, but the Japanese appetite for whale meat is fading.

Iceland is also permitted to catch whales for scientific reasons. In addition, it resumed commercial whaling in 2006.

Norway has a legal objection to the moratorium and has continued commercial hunting of minke whales.

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International Whaling Commission

The International Whaling Commission was set up by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling on December 2, 1946 to promote and maintain whale fishery stocks.

Since the 1980s the IWC has become the primary mechanism for the protection of all species of whale.

In 1986 it adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling, which is still in force.

The IWC's 59th annual meeting took place in Anchorage, Alaska, from May 28-31. The IWC's 60th annual meeting is set to take place in Chile.

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