For journalists used to the smooth diplomatic hum of the global conference circuit, covering the poisonous annual meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is akin to being slapped in the face with a slab of week-old minke bacon.

Government representatives from across the world fill expensive, tax-funded conference halls and tear verbal strips off each other in language that is stunningly, almost comically, undiplomatic.

“Barbaric,” “cruel” and “imperialist” are part of the standard lexicon of insults traded by delegates with elephantine memories for slights scored decades before. Top of the list of slights came on June 30, 1979, when antiwhaling protesters in London chanted “murderers” and “barbarians” at seemingly stunned Japanese bureaucrats and splashed them with red paint — an experience burned deep into the collective cortex of the Japanese Fisheries Agency (FA) to this day.

IWC discussions move at the pace of a harpooned humpback, bogged down by bickering and grandstanding. At the last meeting in St. Kitts in 2006, delegates even called for a vote on the translation of a single word.

“I couldn’t believe how decadent the IWC had become,” said U.S.-based French environmental consultant Remi Parmentier, who — lately as director of the Varda Group (vardagroup.org) — has been involved in the antiwhaling movement for decades. “This organization is really sick. No international body can function like this,” he said.

Yet terminally ill as the IWC may be, it has been the main international forum for debate on whaling since 1949. As whales have climbed higher up the list of endangered species and become a sort of pinup for the plunder of the environment, IWC debates have grown increasingly vitriolic and uncompromising.

Emboldened in St. Kitts by the prowhaling lobby’s first IWC majority in more than two decades, Japan’s whaling fleet has this season stepped up its “scientific whaling,” and will hunt 1,070 minke and 170 Bryde’s, sei, sperm and fin whales before returning to home waters in spring. But this year, too, it will also aim to kill 50 humpbacks, a red-list endangered species and one of the dying planet’s most beloved mammals.

Japan’s resolute determination to thumb its nose at the whaling ban puzzles many, not least because the domestic whaling industry is on life-support, sustained only by government cash in a country where eating whalemeat is now a minor, luxury pastime.

Even before the IWC’s 1986 moratorium took effect, the popularity of whalemeat in Japan was plummeting from its peak year in 1962, when 230,000 tons was consumed: in the year scientific whaling began in 1987, 70 tons of the 1,873-ton catch went unsold.

Last year, however, the inventory of unsold whalemeat reached a record 6,000 tons after the Japanese whaling fleets returned from Antarctica, according to researcher Junko Sakurai.

Japan, in other words, risks worldwide opprobrium for a product it apparently cannot sell.

“What is Japan doing,” said an exasperated Chris Carter, New Zealand’s conservation minister, during the humpback debate in St. Kitts. “It seems determined to anger the world.”

See related stories:
Siege mentality fuels ‘sustainability’ claims
Resentments sustain a moribund meat trade
The price of stalemate
Deadlock is dominant in whaling’s ‘petty parlor game’
From the inside looking out . . .

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