International Panel Backs Return to Whaling

The International Whaling Commission voted on Sunday to support a return to commercial whaling, upsetting many conservation groups. The commission banned mass whaling in 1986. NPR Science Correspondent John Nielsen discusses the possible impact of the resolution.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

An icon of the environmental movement under threat. The International Whaling Commission has taken a step to allow commercial whaling. Commercial whale hunting was banned by that same commission 20 years ago, after whales around the world were hunted way down, by industrial whaling fleets. This vote does not actually reverse that ban, but conservationists are alarmed.

NPR's science correspondent John Nielsen has been talking to members of the International Whaling Commission about the vote. He joins us now.

John, what's going on here? What about this vote? It's 33 to 32 in support of commercial whaling?

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Right, with one abstention, which was China. It's not a vote that, as you said, lifts the ban. You need a 70 percent majority to do that. But it is a vote that, for the first time in 23 years - I believe the ban was originally put in place or approved in 1983, argues that the ban should be lifted according to a simple majority of the delegates to the IWC Convention down in Saint Kitts.

It could make easier for Japan to do things at the next meeting of the IWC in a year, that they've been trying to do for a long time, like move to secret balloting. or kick out Greenpeace, which they've talked about doing. Or weaken various conservation committees. So it is important in a lot of ways. It has inspired the representatives of Japan and Finland to say that it's proof that a return to commercial whaling on a limited scale is inevitable.

CHADWICK: Well, ever since this vote was originally taken, Japan, Norway, Iceland, I believe, have all said this is ridiculous and we should keep whaling. They do whale under some circumstances; Norway particularly allows what it calls aboriginal hunting.

NIELSEN: Right.

CHADWICK: But they've somehow managed to get enough votes on this commission to go their way. How did they do that?

NIELSEN: Well, they would tell you that what they've done is convince the world that whale populations, certain whale populations, have rebounded from their formerly decimated state to the point where they can support a limited commercial hunt. Environmentalists, and the people who oppose the return to commercial whaling, will tell you that what has actually happened is that Japan has enticed a number of nations, that don't have a long history of interest in whaling, to join the IWC and vote with them. Those would be nations like Guatemala, and Senegal, and Togo, which reportedly showed up at the meeting in Saint Kitts with...

(Soundbite of chuckling)

NIELSEN: ...a bag of cash to pay their dues. And Japan has been very assiduous about this over the years. There's been an accusation that they promised foreign aid, but the Japanese delegates have very vociferously denied that. In any case, they've added a lot of votes to their side over the years, and just now tipped the balance.

CHADWICK: They got enough to do it. As I said earlier, this is an icon for environmentalists: Save the whale.

NIELSEN: Yes, it is. And I think that you could argue that the campaign to save the whale was one of the campaigns that helped create the environmental movement. So in that sense, any knocking down of that campaign is the kind of thing that environmentalists might argue sort of, you know, it's a receding tide lowering all boats.

CHADWICK: One thing that's happened, the advocates of returning to whaling note that, in fact, whale populations are back up. So the ban was meant to address a condition. It's been addressed.

NIELSEN: Yes. Except that no one knows how far back up, or what they can support in terms of a limited commercial hunt.

CHADWICK: NPR's science correspondent John Nielsen.

John, thank you.

NIELSEN: You're welcome.

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