Whaling talks stuck on compromise deal

June 22, 2009 8:20:26 AM PDT
The International Whaling Commission on Monday began discussing a possible compromise deal that would reduce the number of whales killed each year.

However, environmental groups expressed little hope of a breakthrough in the two-decade dispute at the start of IWC's weeklong annual meeting in Portugal's Madeira islands. Japan, Iceland and Norway run commercial whaling operations which kill around 2,000 whales a year and they are reluctant to give up the trade.

"I don't think this is the meeting of the breakthrough," Remi Parmentier of the U.S.-based Pew Whales Conservation Project said in a telephone interview from Madeira.

Greenpeace whaling campaigner Sara Holden feared the talks would fail to end the long-standing stalemate.

"My main concern is that the delegates here are simply going to sit on their hands content to talk for another year whilst whales continue to die," Holden told AP Television News.

Anti-whaling countries including the United States, the European Union and Australia want to tighten the restrictions introduced by a 1986 moratorium. But a three-quarter majority vote is required for major changes to the IWC convention regulating whaling, and the IWC is roughly split between whaling nations and their supporters and anti-whaling nations.

The Japanese fleet hunts in Antarctica and the northwestern Pacific Ocean under an IWC exemption for scientific research. Japan's government also argues that the international ban on commercial whaling violates its cultural traditions.

Critics say the research program is merely a cover for commercial whaling and that technological advances make it unnecessary to harpoon the whales. Militant environmentalists have clashed with Japan's whaling fleet in recent years in attempts to thwart its whale hunt.

While Japan has a scientific exemption, Iceland and Norway formally objected to the moratorium, declaring themselves exempt under IWC rules.

Delegates from more than 80 countries are examining an IWC compromise proposal under which Japan would swop at least part of its Southern Ocean research quota for permission to hunt in its coastal waters.

The IWC last year asked a group of experts to seek a compromise deal on stock management and conservation. But in a report published last month the experts conceded an agreement on key issues was still beyond reach.

Parmentier urged governments to show flexibility and avoid a collapse of negotiations which could throw the IWC into disarray.

"The situation is fragile, there's no doubt about it," Parmentier said. The commissioners "have pretty much exhausted their options."

He said the best hope was that delegates would agree to keep negotiations open for another year.

Japan, Iceland and Norway together kill around 2,000 whales a year, with the Japanese fleet accounting for almost half that total.

Pro-whaling countries argue that many species are abundant enough to continue hunting them. Minke whales, for example, are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands and are hunted by Japan in the Antarctic and by Iceland and Norway in the North Atlantic.

Other species, such as the North Atlantic right whale, are believed to number just a few hundred. They are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing nets, collisions with ships, pollution and climate change, but the high-profile row over hunting has largely overshadowed other protection measures.

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