THE annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission begins today with pro- and anti-whaling nations considering a safe haven for whales and debating procedures for calculating whale stocks and sustainable levels of hunting.
Signs are that the safe haven in Antarctic waters, which must be approved by three-quarters of voting members, is likely to be accepted at this session, held in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
``It's not in the bag yet, but we're fairly optimistic,'' says Casandra Philips of the World Wildlife Foundation, an international environmental group.
The pro-sanctuary lobby has been bolstered in recent days by declarations of support from former fence-sitting nations. Mexico -
chair of the IWC this year - endorsed the whale refuge proposal last Thursday. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced his ``clear and firm'' support, saying, ``We Mexicans have decided to give ecology the highest social priority.''
Danish officials also voiced their support for the haven for the first time last week. But Roberto Lopez of Greenpeace Mexico suggests that Denmark may be offering its support in exchange for a hunting quota. And Chile, which has reservations about the sanctuary infringing on its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), now conditionally favors the sanctuary concept.
Among the IWC's 39 members, Japan, Norway, and four Caribbean states are the only nations attending the meeting that oppose the proposal, environmentalists say. But the anti-sanctuary nations say they could support the no-whaling zone if certain species are excluded.
Some also speculate that Caribbean states may reconsider their opposition because of a threatened tourism boycott by several environmental groups.
Support for sanctuary
The Southern Ocean whale sanctuary, first proposed two years ago by France, is co-sponsored by the United States, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. If approved, it would prohibit commercial whaling south of 40 degrees latitude, an area where seven of the eight most-endangered great whale species breed.
Japan is the only nation that hunts whales in Antarctic waters, but the Russian fishing industry is expressing renewed interest in whaling there. Chile says it supports the sanctuary, but wants a smaller zone that does not overlap its EEZ.
Environmentalists consider the sanctuary an important step because it reinforces a 1986 ban on commercial whaling that has started to erode as disputes arise over whether a complete ban on certain stocks is valid.
Norway, for example, is currently ignoring the moratorium. It complied for six years, but in 1993 allowed the capture of 157 minke whales for commercial purposes and another 69 for ``research'' purposes. Under IWC rules, permission is given for whale hunts for scientific research. Last year, Japan killed 300 minke whales in Antarctic waters for research purposes.
Research vs. commerce
Anti-whaling groups argue that whether one calls it research or commerce, this is whaling for profit because meat is sold for human consumption.
But whaling nations argue the extreme protection granted to whales is driven more by emotion than logic. Norwegian officials say that hunting among the 87,000 minke whales off Norway's coast provides important income to coastal communities. This year, Norway is raising its research kill to 382 minke whales and may allow a commercial hunt of another 860. The exact commercial quota will be set after the IWC meeting.
Another potential source of controversy at the IWC meeting could be the Revised Management Procedure (RMP) - a procedure used by the IWC to calculate whale stocks and define sustainable levels of hunting. Some environmental groups oppose the RMP as a slippery slope leading to renewed commercial whaling.
Mexico's IWC representative has, at times, sounded like a whale hunting advocate. But the Mexican government is now publicly siding with environmentalists in asking for caution on the RMP. ``The Commission has in the past been notoriously subject to political pressure,'' says Deputy Foreign Minister Andres Rozental. ``Until we have total scientific assurances on all species, we must exercise caution in exploiting this resource.''
The best way to ensure that scientific data used in the RMP is accurate and the moratorium effective is to put observers on every whaling boat, Mr. Rozental says. He notes Mexico has put observers on tuna boats to reduce incidental dolphin kill.
Rozental also questions the recent entrance of Caribbean nations into the IWC as allies of Japan. Greenpeace charges that the Caribbean states have been given Japanese aid in exchange for supporting a pro-whaling position, a charge Caribbean officials deny. ``Membership should be potential users of the resource, whether it be for food, tourism, or reproductive protection,'' Rozental says. He says Mexico is pushing for fundamental revisions to the IWC.