Late arrivals to the 40th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) here last week had to squeeze past placard-toting Greenpeace protesters outside the Sheraton Hotel. The signs read: ``Japan, Norway, Iceland, Stop Whaling.'' Inside, the message was more diplomatically delivered but essentially the same.
Norway, Japan, and Iceland seem determined to test the resolve of the IWC over its five-year ban on commercial whaling begun in 1986. With several species near extinction due to overhunting, the moratorium is to allow time for whale stocks to be assessed.
But Japan killed 273 Antarctica minke whales earlier this year and Iceland killed 80 fin and 20 sei whales last year under a convention loophole that allows the aquatic mammals to be killed for ``scientific reasons.''
The whaling went ahead despite IWC condemnation. As a result, the United States has leveled (largely symbolic) fishing sanctions against Japan, and Iceland found itself subject to a damaging fish-products boycott.
This past week, Norway also drew the ire of conservationists for its research whaling plans to kill 30 North Atlantic minke whales this year (and perhaps 200 or more next year), and to anesthetize five whales to implant radio transmitters. Whales cannot breathe while unconscious and the experiment is likely to kill the whales, say conservationists.
Dr. Arne Schiotz, the IWC representative for the Switzerland-based World Wide Fund for Nature, says the scientific hunts are a poorly disguised effort to the keep the whaling industry going until the ban is lifted.
But, one of Japan's IWC delegates responds, ``Even after all the meat was sold, our government had to pay $4 million [in expenses] for the expedition.''
``There was no profit, so its absurd to say this was a commercial operation. And one ship is not enough to keep an industry alive,'' he says.
The IWC passed resolutions denying scientific whaling permits to Norway and Iceland. (Permits may be granted if the research furthers the goal of stock assessment.) Officials from both nations indicated the resolutions would have little if any effect on their whaling plans.
The IWC has no power, apart from public opinion, to enforce its actions.
Conservationists say the North Atlantic minke stock has shrunk to so low a level that even minor whaling endangers its recovery.
Japan has not yet submitted a proposal for further research whaling. But Japanese delegates said there will be more hunts once the analysis of the scientific hunt earlier this year is complete.
``Some parts of what they're doing have scientific validity,'' says Dr. Roger Payne, scientific advisor to Antigua and Barbuda, ``but for the most part it's a sham.'' Japan can accomplish the same scientific ends by nonlethal methods, says Payne.
Sensitive to such criticism, Japan is promising to review its scientific methods before the next hunt. Last year, Japan began its research whale hunt before the results of an IWC vote on its scientific permit request were known. To prevent that from happening again, the IWC passed a resolution last week which requires a 60-day wait following a request for a scientific whaling permit.
Japan won IWC support for a study of their proposal to establish a new category of whaling - small coastal whaling - exempt from the moratorium. The moratorium already allows for limited hunting by small groups of natives for whom whaling has long been a part of their culture.