Save the whale?

My favourite quote of the last Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth came from Nick Clegg:  “You might not think we are exciting, but even the great mammals of the sea find the Liberal Democrats exciting!”  A female bottlenose called Gilbert had attempted to upstage us by appearing off the Bournemouth coast, and we laughed that a whale was trying to get into  conference.  Then Gilbert washed up dead, and unkind sketch writers spied a metaphor.

No dead whales washed up poetically on the beaches of Agadir in Morroco last month, but the talks of the International Whaling Commission foundered once again on the issue of the international moratorium on whaling that has been in force since 1986.

‘Save the Whales’ was an icon of the environmental movement, but our Government should base fisheries policy on sound science rather than sentiment.  Our credibility as environmentalists depends on it.

The whale population collapsed due to overfishing, but governments came together and saved them from the brink of extinction.  It was a monument to international cooperation and law achieving a concrete environmental goal – and as a result, there has been a 24-year moratorium on whaling, with only a few exceptions for indigenous peoples and scientific studies.

The most recent IWC meeting at Agadir seemed ready to overturn the moratorium, with a proposed deal to allow commercial whaling, under strict quotas.

Alongside the political body of the International Whaling Commission, a scientific committee was set up to monitor whale stocks and report on the commercial basis for whaling.  These scientists are saying that Minke whales are abundant in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean, and that many depleted stocks of other whale species are recovering at encouraging rates. Which is to say that the resource basis for whaling  can support exploitation, and is expanding. The IWC’s own scientific advisors are saying this – but our politicians are ignoring them in favour of sentimental vegetarian arguments.

The only way we can save the planet from the threat of disastrous climate change is by mobilising hard science to convince the public and international policy-makers that there is a real problem.  As environmentalists, we must also be scientists. If science disagrees with us on other issues and we distort or dismiss it, we lose all credibility where it matters most.

Anti-whaling members of the commission argue that not enough research has been done to convince them to establish catch limits other than zero. They demand further work on formulating inspection and observer systems.  This is as cynical as George W. Bush demanding further work on climate change, while accusing climate change campaigners of having ulterior motives.  And just like ex-President Bush, anti-whaling politicians are only doing so to please their constituents at home.

As one long-standing IWC Scientific Committee member, Dr. Peter Best, has argued, the moratorium continues in spite of science, rather than because of it. He wrote:

“Do I think in retrospect that the adoption of the moratorium was justified, on the grounds of prevailing uncertainties? Well, in the sense that the adoption of the moratorium forced the development of the Revised Management Procedure, which directly addressed scientific uncertainties in assessment, then I think it was justified. On the other hand, in the sense that the moratorium has become what we all feared it might, an indiscriminate and permanent ban on whaling, then I don’t think it was justified.”

The International Whaling Commission was set up not to enforce a ban on whaling, but to manage whale stocks.  It was established to protect whales from overfishing and regulate the number of whales that can be harpooned while safeguarding this natural resource for future generations.

The IWC is a law-creating body that binds member countries. But it is being used to satisfy an unscientific public mood in  countries that, in any case, don’t even have whaling industries or a desire to eat whales.  It looks unfair and cynical.  That undermines international law.

Marine resources should be harvested in a sustainable manner, and taking out one species for sentimental reasons is not constructive environmental policy.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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