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Whales seen safer after Berlin whaling summit

20th June 2003

Planet Ark

IWC - Berlin

The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission drew to a close yesterday having agreed steps ecologists say will make the seas safer for the threatened giants, to the disgust of whaling nations.

The meeting blocked a bid by Japan to re-introduce commercial whaling, banned since 1986, and chastised Japan for the 700 whales it kills per year for scientific purposes.
It also angered Japan by agreeing to set up a conservation committee to advise on tackling threats to marine mammals, including pollution, climate change, sonar and fishing nets that environmentalists say trap and kill 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises per year.

The deeply polarized world body remained as divided as ever, yet it held together despite threats of walk-outs during the four days, and looks forward to a meeting in Italy next year when conservation of the planet's largest mammals will be firmly part of the agenda.

Ecology groups hailed the committee plan as essential to preserving endangered whales and dolphins. The IWC had been shifted toward conservation and away from hunting, they said.

"This week has shaped the future of the IWC," said Susan Lieberman, head of the World Wildlife Fund's delegation.

"We're hopeful but not naive. I can't say there will no more unnecessary deaths."

Japan said it would consider its options, including pulling out of the IWC, but other whaling nations promised to return.


The IWC is split between pro-whalers, led by Japan and Norway, that are keen to allow limited whale catches, and those such as the United States and many European states pushing to give greater protection to whales and dolphins.

Amid scientific evidence backing each group, the decision to save or hunt whales is charged with emotion.

"The main topic here has been the conservation agenda and it has further polarized the groups. Our frustration has just increased," said Japanese delegate Masayuki Komatsu.

Anti-whaling nations believe that they are winning the battle. Mexican delegation head Andres Rozental said the chances of the IWC ending the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling were steadily decreasing after 11 years of heated debate.

"Year by year there are fewer interests in those whaling countries. The pressure in Japan is reducing. They see it as an industry on its way out, while international opinion against is growing and growing," he said.

Environmentalists, at least, believed Japan would be back next year to continue the fight.

"If Japan withdrew it would become a pirate whaler and then I think the international community would gain teeth," said Greenpeace's Richard Page.

Non-governmental organizations were heavily present at the meeting, most in the anti-whaling camp. Greenpeace caused the biggest splashes, tying a 15 metre long inflatable whale to Berlin's landmark television tower and confronting delegates with three dead porpoises on the final day.

Whale watchers were also admitted as observers for the first time, arguing that their industry, now worth over $1.5 billion per year, has come of age with thousands of tourists seeking the thrill of spotting the world's biggest mammals each year.

"We see ourselves as the new whalers," said Frank Future, the Australian head of the fledgling International Alliance for Commercial Whale Watchers (IACWW).

Story by Philip Blenkinsop