SHIMONOSEKI, Yamaguchi Pref. — The International Whaling Commission’s weeklong annual plenary meeting ended Friday with a ban on commercial hunting in place for another year but nations bitterly divided over aboriginal whaling.
Observers said the meeting was the most divisive in years after Tokyo led a bloc of mainly Caribbean nations in defeating the renewal of an aboriginal whaling quota for northern natives in Alaska and northeastern Russia by a single vote.
“In 56 years of history in the IWC,” said U.S. IWC Commissioner Rolland Schmitten, “that was the most unjust, unkind, unfair vote that was ever taken. That vote literally denied people (the ability) to feed their families.”
U.S. officials said they are considering all their options and are willing to continue the debate as long as it takes to reach agreement.
“We will leave no stone unturned. It is so critical that we want to see if we can revive it today,” a disappointed Schmitten said. “Governments can play games, but you can’t play with families.”
Japan and 10 other countries voted against the proposal to renew a bowhead take of 279 for Alaskan Inuits and to Russia’s indigenous Chukotka people. Thirty-two delegates supported the request, which failed to get the necessary three-quarters majority. China and Panama abstained.
A dejected George Ahmaogak, an Inuit, whaling captain and mayor of a small municipality and resident of Barrow, Alaska, worried that the decision will have serious implications for Inuit.
“We have worked so hard to meet the mandates and the requirements of the IWC (for 25 years) and we are very disappointed.”
Ahmaogak, a member of the U.S. delegation who has attended IWC meetings since 1977, said that just under 10,000 people in 10 coastal villages rely on whale meat for 80 percent of their diet.
“We live in a very harsh cold environment,” Ahmaogak said. “The blubber is the key element of our diet (that allows us) to take on the hard, cold weather.
“When it gets to 70 or 80 (degrees) below, the blubber of that whale thickens the blood to withstand the environment. We lose that, we have a really serious problem.”
Japan objected to putting the proposal to vote Friday.
“This proposal is virtually the same as that we voted down yesterday,” Masayuki Komatsu told the plenary before the vote. “Procedurally, taking this up is a problem.”
Prior to the vote, Japan proposed a last-ditch compromise by amending the bowhead quota proposal to also allow Japan a commercial catch of 25 minke whales for what it calls four whaling villages.
However, the chairman ruled against it, and commission members voted the amendment down because it addressed commercial whaling, not aboriginal subsistence whaling.
The difference, the U.S. delegation said, is the difference between meat for supermarkets and meat for family dinner tables. Japan’s delegation, however, sees it in terms of need and says the needs of aborigines and those of commercial whaling towns is the same.
“We requested (a catch of Northern Pacific minke whales) for our people based on science, based on needs,” Komatsu told a mob of journalists after the vote. “And there is the issue of their livelihoods very much almost the same as aboriginal subsistence whaling. So what the U.S. is saying is completely inappropriate.”
It was the first year, ironically, that no resolution was endorsed condemning Japan’s scientific whaling program. The commission ran out of time, largely due to days of bickering between Japan and the U.S. over the bowhead issue.
Some IWC veterans called it the least productive meeting they had attended in more than three decades. Criticism and concern over the future and functionality of the IWC abounded as the curtain closed on the annual gathering. “What has happened over the last few days has nothing to do with aboriginal subsistence whaling and everything to do with dirty politics,” Mexican IWC Commissioner Andres Rozental said. “This will undoubtedly come back to haunt us in the future.”
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