In the world of international conferences, there is nothing to compare with the farcical and unrivalled pointlessness of the meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which consistently fail to achieve the meager level of results that can be claimed for summits on climate change or peace in the Middle East. Year after year, the members of the Commission meet in some of the most beautiful locations on the planet to explain that they have nothing to say to each other. However, this year, for the first time since the imposition of a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, they may be able to achieve a consensus. Chilean Whaling Commission President Christian Maquieira will table proposals to authorise an overall quota of 1400 catches per year over the next ten years for the limited number of nations who continue to hunt whales, which will then be followed by a total ban.

After centuries of uncontrolled whaling, in 1946 the ICW was established with a brief to ensure the sustained and orderly development of the whaling industry. In 1986, in the wake of four decades of technical progress which had made whale-hunting for raw materials unnecessary, a majority of its member states including Germany and the United States voted to impose a moratorium on commercial whaling. The decision came as slap in the face for the countries that still had a whaling industry. The institution that was supposed to safeguard fishing stocks and encourage industrial development had effectively been transformed into an environmental watchdog. On this basis, they refused to accept the commission's decision and opted to ignore the ban.

Divergent cultures

Since then IWC meetings have been marked by trench warfare between to irreconcilable cultural views. The pro-whaling countries argue that whales are a marine resource like herring or prawns. Ranged against them, the rest of the world is adamant that whales merit a sacred-cow status. In Europe and the United States, many people decorate their bedrooms with whale posters, listen to whale song recordings, and take part in whale-watching holidays organised by hundreds of travel agencies around the world. For these people, whales are not mere animals, they are angels in a new secular environmental religion, superior beings bearing messages of wisdom from Mother Nature. Zoologists tend to adopt a more balanced view. Certainly whales are intelligent, but they are no brighter than the foxes and wild boar, which are hunted virtually everywhere in Europe.

Over the years, an increasingly bizarre array of countries have joined the whaling commission. Japan has made use of chequebook diplomacy to rally a large number of tiny islands to support its cause, while the other side has manoeuvred to bring in landlocked countries that are opposed to whale hunting. It is not easy to explain to the supporters of sustainable hunting what countries like Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary are doing in an international commission on whales.

Increasing whale populations

Now that the whaling boats do not bring in more than 2,000 catches a year, whale populations are increasing in numbers. The extent of this increase varies from species to species. The 350 remaining North Atlantic right whales are still threatened with extinction, while the minke whale population, which has been boosted by the disappearance of larger species, has increased by 500,000. From the point of view of the protection of endangered species, there is no coherent argument for the continued ban on the hunting of minkes. However, animal rights activists have been right to oppose the use of explosive harpoons, which do not kill the animal immediately but cause it undergo unnecessary suffering. Of course, it goes without saying that arguments of this kind should also apply to foxes and wild boar.