Twenty four years ago, a worldwide ban on commercial whaling was introduced. At a meeting in Morocco tomorrow, 21 June, 88 nations will vote on whether to abandon or continue that ban.
An unlikely group of Caribbean countries, none of which hunts whales or has large markets for whale meat, will play a deciding role on whether hunting of the world’s whales will be legalised when a vote is taken at the meeting of the International Whaling Commission.
Suriname and six countries in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, have traditionally sided with Japan to lift the whaling ban and are expected to do so again.
Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of the seventh OECS nation, Dominica, announced in 2008 that his country would no longer side with Japan on its whaling stance.
Japan, along with Norway and Iceland, have continued to carry out whaling, despite the ban, which came into effect in 1986. The Asian island nation uses a loophole that enables its fishermen to continue hunting whales for “scientific research”, while Norway and Iceland have lodged official objections to the ban and have been allowed to continued to hunt.
It is estimated that, between them, the three countries have killed more than 30,000 whiles since the ban began, with Japan killing 1,000 a year.
Sir Ronald Sanders, a former Caribbean diplomat, speaking at a meeting of Caribbean and international environmental experts in Grenada in May, argued that it was not in the economic interests of Caribbean nations to vote with Japan because of the burgeoning whale-watching industry growing in the Caribbean.
“There is a real risk that the proposition may be adopted in Morocco, largely because Japan – which is the most aggressive of the three whaling countries – has solicited the support of a number of small, and economically vulnerable nations in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific to support its position at the meeting…
“Support for Japan by the countries in the Eastern Caribbean is not in their sustainable economic interest because, increasingly they are earning regular annual revenues and creating employment in the whale-watching as part of the tourism industry on which all their economies now depend,” he said.
Sanders added: “So, the question is why? Why support whale hunting, when except for a few people in the tiny islands of the Grenadines, no one in the Caribbean eats whale meat? Why support whale hunting when whales in the Caribbean Sea are no threat to our food stock? Why support whale hunting when killing them upsets the already fragile biodiversity of our oceans and seas to the detriment of our natural environment? Why support whale hunting when the Caribbean needs whales to sustain its nascent whale-watching industry which already earns money and provides jobs, and could do much more of both?
“The answer lies in the exploitation by Japan of the economic vulnerabilities of these small economies by offering them aid in the form of fish refrigeration facilities in return for their joining the IWC and voting with Japan.”
The International Whaling Commission has said that keeping the status quo is not an option, because of the widely differing views of its 88 members, some of which support commercial whaling while others want it banned entirely.
“To overcome the present impasse, the IWC has in recent years recognised the need to create a non-confrontational environment within which issues of fundamental difference amongst members can be discussed with a view to their resolution. Reconciliation of differences in views about whales and whaling will strengthen actions related to the common goal of maintaining healthy whale populations and maximising the likelihood of the recovery of depleted populations,” the report states.
So, in a bid to get countries to come to a consensus, a new deal is on the table. Although the new agreement states that the commercial whaling moratorium will remain, it will enable countries that already kill whales to continue to do so, instead setting a limit on how many whales can be killed. If the deal is agreed, it will remain in place for 10 years.
Supporters say the quotas will be capped at a lower level than the current number of whales killed, but opponents argue it would legitimise commercial hunting of whales and that the capped quotas may not be adhered to.
Some of the Caribbean countries that are expected to vote for the lifting of the ban make millions of dollars a year from tourists who take part in whale-watching tours. While Cayman is not known for the abundance of whales that pass through its waters, it is not unheard of for people to spot pods of whales here.
Brenda Gadd, director of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute said whales migrate through the Caribbean and have been seen in Cayman waters.
“In fact, [in May] we have a beautiful pod of orcas that came between Little Cayman and Cayman Brac,” she said.
There were reports of beaked whales being spotted off Barkers in West Bay early this month. Last year, a sperm whale washed up on a reef in Little Cayman and another sperm whale washed up at Spotts in Grand Cayman, and pilot whales or false killer whales have also been spotted in Cayman waters.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon sent a message to the Grenada meeting, held from 19 to 21 May, calling for an adjustment of “policies and mind-sets to reflect the true value of species and habitats”. The meeting declared that OECS governments should respond to Ban’s call by opposing or abstaining on proposals for commercial whaling at the IWC’s Annual Meeting in Morocco.
Environmental experts attending the meeting emphasised that the Caribbean has branded itself as an eco-friendly environment for tourism which accounts for the greater part of the area’s gross domestic product, foreign exchange earnings and employment. A statement by organisers read: “Dead whales are no good to the Caribbean; live ones bring revenues and employment from the whale-watching industry. In this regard, the OECS governments should vote in their own interests.”
A 2009 study called “Whale Watching Worldwide” by a group of independent economists in Australia showed that whale-watching had grown tremendously over the last 11 years in the Caribbean and Central America, with the number of whale-watchers participating in tours growing by 13 per cent per year from 1998 to 2008 and their spending in Central American and Caribbean economies increasing to US$54 million from US$11 million in 1998.
St Lucia’s whale-watchers have grown in numbers from 65 in 1998 to 16,650 in 2008 – a growth of 74.1 per cent and earning the tiny country US$1.57 in 2008. Dominica’s whale-watchers rose from 5,000 in 1998 to 14,500 in 2008, earning the country US$1.78 million in 2008,
In early May, at a meeting in St Lucia, Caribwhale, an organisation that represents the whale-watching business in the Eastern Caribbean, declared in a public statement: “Lifting the ban on commercial whaling would have an immediate and calamitous effect on the whale watching industry in Central America and the Caribbean which now earns the area in excess of US$54 million per annum and provides employment for thousands of people.
“Our region could also experience the real danger of the three remaining whaling countries traversing our territorial waters and killing whales before they reach the Caribbean. This would deplete the whale population and destroy the beneficial whale watching business as well as any further contribution it can make to our region’s tourism earnings.”
The whale deal and what it means
The global whaling moratorium took effect in 1986, but three nations — Japan, Norway and Iceland — have continued hunting whales, killing about 1,700 annually in re-cent years. The United States and other anti-whaling countries are hoping to make a deal that would create an international monitoring system to ensure a steadily declining hunt. The 10-year plan would cut — but condone — hunting in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which won international protection in 1994. Japan’s annual quota of 935 Antarctic minke whales — which it takes in the name of scientific research, an exception to the moratorium — would be cut to 400 during the next five years and then drop to 200 in the following five years. Its current hunt of 320 sei and minke whales off its coast would be reduced to 210.
Under the proposal, whalers initially would be allowed to take 400 Antarctic minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere, an area that includes the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, and the number would fall to 200 over the next decade. Also in the Southern Hemisphere, the number of fin whales that could be taken would start at 10 and drop to five in that period. The sup-port of three-quarters of the delegates will be needed for passage. Proponents, of the plans say these quotas would be capped at a lower level than the killing currently going on, so, at the end of a 10-year period, fewer whales would have been killed. In addition, there would be other conservation measures, including observers on boats, a sanctuary in the South Atlantic, and a DNA database to trace the origin of whalemeat.The opponents say that legitimising the commercial hunting of whales would open the way to a free-for-all. But, even more, there is no guarantee that the capped quotas would be safe, adequate, or even respected. One of the world’s leading experts on whaling, the British biologist Justin Cooke, who is the representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature on the IWC Scientific Committee, took the deal apart in the US Congress, in evidence to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Dr Cooke said: “The proposal is disingenuous and I suspect that it will fool many people.” It was a scam, he said, in which the calculation of how many whales could be killed was being left to politicians rather than scientists.