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TIME FOR THE ANNUAL RITUAL

“At some point we are confident we will overturn the (whaling) moratorium. It is becoming a reality,” said Joji Morishita, a member of Japan’s huge delegation to the annual morality play that the International Whaling Commission’s meetings have become. But it wasn’t a reality yet at last week’s meeting in Berlin: IWC members voted 25-20 to protect whales indefinitely, and defeated a Japanese proposal to loosen the total ban on whaling in the Antarctic Ocean sanctuary.

On the other hand, proposals to create new no-whaling sanctuaries in the South Pacific (backed by Australia and New Zealand) and the South Atlantic (supported by Brazil and Argentina), were blocked by the pro-whaling group. The leaders of this group, Japan and Norway, were once big whaling nations, but most of their allies were small, poor countries that never had a whaling industry.

What they do have in common is a large appetite for Japanese development aid. Every year since the late Nineties a few unlikely new members have paid their dues and joined the IWC. They are mostly from the Caribbean — St Lucia, Belize, St Kitt’s and Nevis, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica — with some outlying co-conspirators like Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Palau. They all seem extraordinarily keen on whaling for people who have never done it.

Numbers game

But how did the anti-whaling lobby get the ban on whaling accepted by the IWC in 1986 in the first place' By packing the membership with non-whaling countries that shared their views. The currency on the pro-whaling side is more likely to be favours than outright bribes, but does anybody really believe that San Marino, a mountain-top city-state entirely surrounded by Italy, recently joined the IWC in response to overwhelming popular demand'

Both sides are playing the numbers game, even if the Japanese tactics for getting their numbers up are more cynical. (A couple of years ago the international director of Japan’s fisheries agency said that he saw “nothing wrong” with using development aid to buy votes on the IWC.) And both sides are angry and bitter — largely because neither side is being honest about its true motives for waging this struggle.

It’s not really about conservation. Some whale species, like the fin whales and the blue whales, the largest animals who ever lived, have never recovered from the slaughter of the 19th and 20th century and will need strict protection indefinitely. Others, like the sperm whales and minke whales, have populations big and stable enough to withstand limited whaling.

Caught in a net

But the anti-whaling lobby simply cannot bear to see these beautiful and seemingly very intelligent creatures killed for food. The intelligence is the key: many people have a strong emotional conviction that while killing animals for food is justifiable, we should not kill anything that closely resembles ourselves, and whales’ intelligence puts them in that charmed circle. This attitude drives the Japanese and the Norwegians to frustration and fury.

On the other hand, their own position is not exactly hyper-rational either. The limited amount of whaling that the Norwegians do in defiance of the moratorium is merely a disguised subsidy to coastal communities: Norwegians don’t eat whale-meat any more, and the stuff was just piling up in cold storage until they started exporting it to Japan.

The 550 whales a year that Japan kills in the name of “scientific research” end up in restaurants, but 61 per cent of Japanese have not tasted whale-meat since childhood if at all. “Japan doesn’t have a whaling industry any more, and Japanese don’t have an appetite for whale-meat,” said Motoji Nagasawa of Greenpeace Japan. “It is the pride of the bureaucrats. They just don’t like to be seen to lose.” That sums up the annual IWC ritual. Meanwhile the biggest real threat to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) remain fishing nets, in which some 300,000 die each year.

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