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Majority Votes to Legalize Whaling

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 19, 2006
 
A slim majority of nations on the International Whaling Commission voted
Sunday in support of legalizing commercial whaling.

The vote—33 for and 32 against, with one abstention—fell short of the three-quarters majority needed to overturn the 20-year ban on commercial whaling.

Nevertheless, "it certainly is a sea change for the commission, now that pro-whaling nations are in the majority," said Andrew Read, a marine biologist at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina.

Read is on the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Recent changes in commission membership that led up to this vote will allow pro-whaling nations, led by Japan, to set the agenda of future meetings and steer the governing body away from whale conservation, he says.

The resolution was presented at the commission's annual meeting, held this year on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts (St. Kitts and Nevis map and facts). The document declared that the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling had been intended as a temporary measure and is no longer necessary.

"Many species and stocks of whales are abundant and sustainable whaling is possible," the motion read.

Pro-whaling nations argue the abundant whale populations are depleting fish stocks important to the livelihood of small island nations.

"That carries virtually no scientific credibility," Read said.

According to the marine biologist, there is no scientific evidence that increasing whale populations have led to a decline in the number of fish caught by commercial fleets.

Pro-Whaling

Since the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, Japan has worked tirelessly to restore the whale hunt. The Japanese argue that whaling is central to the island nation's culture.

In the days leading up to the St. Kitts meeting, environmentalists and antiwhaling nations feared Japan had finally secured enough votes to give the commission a pro-whaling majority and begin chipping away at the commercial whaling ban.

These fears were temporarily allayed on Friday when a motion failed to remove from the agenda discussion of conserving small whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Three other pro-whaling motions also failed, including a move to make IWC votes secret, a call for the exemption of some coastal Japanese communities from the commercial-whaling moratorium, and a proposed resolution to cancel the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

Established by the IWC in 1994, the sanctuary includes the waters around Antarctica. Japan, however, continues to hunt minke whales within the sanctuary.

Japan "lost because some countries that vote with them either had not arrived or [not] paid their dues," Duke University's Read said.

Antiwhaling nations and environmental groups say Japan has lobbied small African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries to side with it on the IWC in exchange for Japanese financial aid.

(See "Pro-Whaling Countries Poised to Take Over Commission" [June 16].)

While Japan denies the charge, Read said the outcome of Sunday's vote "has been expected for some time, as Japan has been encouraging and enticing countries to join the IWC and vote with it to overturn the moratorium."

Historic Vote

Glenn Inwood, a spokesperson for the Japanese delegation at the St. Kitts meeting, told the Associated Press that Sunday's vote was a "historic moment."

"It's the first serious setback for those against whaling in years. It's only a matter of time before the commercial ban is overturned," he said.

Duke's Read said the vote does signal a change.

"If more countries who are going to vote with Japan join the IWC, within the foreseeable future we could see the end of the moratorium and resumption of commercial whaling," he said.

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