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Activists Continue Struggle Against Whaling

The 55th International Whaling Commission meeting in Berlin, Germany, last week ended with member nations sharply divided over the management of the world's whale population.

The International Whaling Commission, founded in 1946 with a dual mission to protect whale stocks and to promote the orderly development of the whaling industry, has struggled to meet these often contradictory goals. Those struggles continued in Berlin.

Delegates from 51 countries and observers from more than 40 conservation groups attended the five-day meeting.

The Commission resolved to establish a conservation committee to address such issues as marine pollution, climate change and accidental by-catch the unintentional snaring of whales in commercial fishing nets. The pro-whaling nations led by Japan, Norway and Iceland have threatened to withhold financial support from the initiative and called the plan "an attempt to subvert the purpose of the organization." The same countries also successfully blocked passage of a measure that would have created whale sanctuaries in the South Pacific and the South Atlantic.

Kieran Mulvaney, a veteran of anti-whaling expeditions in Antarctica, attended the Berlin meeting as an independent observer.

He told VOA's Rosanne Skirble that the International Whaling Commission, or IWC, is nearly evenly divided between pro and anti-whaling forces.

Mulvaney: There are two sides that are very deeply entrenched. There is no apparent opportunity for dialogue. There is no trust on either side. Both sides have fought themselves to a stalemate, and it is very difficult to see where it goes from here. You basically have two blocs disagreeing on what the IWC's [International Whaling Commission] goals should be.

Skirble: What are the issues between them and what holds them together?

Mulvaney: What holds them together is simply the fact that the [International Whaling Commission] is recognized and is established in international law as the forum, the only acceptable recognized forum dealing with issues to whales in particular. Not to be a part of the forum particularly from the point of view of the pro-whalers would put them in serious violation of international law were they to conduct commercial whaling or any type of whaling outside of the forum.

Skirble: What do they agree on, how do they work together?

Mulvaney: Essentially they don't. What you have is one side comes in with an agenda the anti-whaling side to pass resolutions to condemn, for example, the fact that the Japanese are using a scientific research clause in the convention to continue whaling. Iceland is planning to do the same. The other bloc is seeking to get enough members that they can pass resolutions commending those same activities.

There is at the heart an issue called the 'Revised Management Scheme.' Ever since the [International] Whaling Commission voted for a ban on whaling in 1986 [it] has theoretically been working towards this 'Revised Management Scheme' which would allow whaling to be conducted which would not deplete whaling populations.

However, you have a situation where the conservation bloc doesn't really want this because they don't like the idea of any whaling, and in fact the whaling bloc doesn't like this [either], because this would severely restrict their whaling. So, it [IWC] is a little bit dysfunctional right now. That was one of the definite senses that I came away with [from the meeting]. The two sides have battered themselves into a stalemate, and it is difficult to see where the Whaling Commission goes from here.

Skirble: What are the greatest threats to whales and how does commercial whaling fit in?

Mulvaney: At its current level commercial whaling is not by any means the largest threat facing whales. I think that it is a combination of issues. If you isolate any particular problem facing the marine ecosystem it would have to be rampant overfishing that is taking place. That is devastating marine ecosystems, not only with the fish that are being removed, but also the habitat damage being done by bottom trawls, for example.

If you factor in then, additional issues, whose impacts we barely understand [like] climate change and ozone depletion, coastal habitat destruction and pollution, then you have this myriad of effects together all possibly having severe impacts. And also, two interesting developments are that whales appear to be in some considerable trouble from noise pollution and ship strikes [collisions] particularly with small populations. For example, the biggest single factor affecting the Right Whales in the North Atlantic - because they are such a small population living in a coastal area is being hit by ships.

In his new book Whaling Season Kieran Mulvaney describes his decade-long fight to halt Japanese whaling vessels in Antarctica with the environmental group Greenpeace.