Anachronistic Whaling Commission stumbles on UK : July 27, 2001

LONDON - The International Whaling Commission, described by its own members as
anachronistic, draws down the curtain on its 53rd annual meeting today after a week of open warfare between pro-and anti-whaling factions.

Phrases such as "spurious", "misleading", "grossly inaccurate" and "disinformation"
regularly flew across the floor, with truth at times seeming a subjective commodity.

As one NGO obeserver at the meeting remarked: "This is the heart of darkness."

Anti-whaling nations led by Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand always voted together, getting their way on most key issues.

They admitted that the IWC had failed to adapt to the 21st century but said it was all they had to retain some semblance of order in the world of whaling.

"It is like a whale - old and toothless," British delegation head Richard Cowan told Reuters. "But it is something to hang on to."

The IWC's detractors agreed that the organisation had indeed been left beached somewhere in the mid-20th century when it was born, but that it would - by their efforts
- reform.

The unspoken fear on both sides of the fence was that if it was torn down it would never be rebuilt, leaving uncontrolled killing of whales to recommence with cataclysmic results.

The organisation, set up in 1946 to protect the great whales that had been hunted to the edge of annihilation for food, fat and fashion, made no progress during the week on lifting
the 16-year-old ban it imposed on commercial whaling.

Britain's new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (recently recreated from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food after the country's foot-and-mouth disaster) says none of the great whales - from the gargantuan 150-tonne Blue Whale to the relatively diminutive 15-tonne Minke - is now in immediate danger of extinction thanks to the ban.

But the Blue and its 90-tonne Northern Right cousin are classified as endangered, while the Bowhead, Southern Right, Sei, Fin and Humpback whales are considered vulnerable.

However, even the degree of endangerment of individual species was a point of contention.

The IWC confusingly first welcomed back former member Iceland then amid uproar and
recrimination promptly put it on hold and relegated it to observer status for refusing to
comply with the commercial whaling ban.

Reykjavik, which quit the IWC nine years ago in disgust at its anti-whaling stance, rejoined last month but controversially insisted that it be allowed to resume the hunt.

"It is hard to understand how some find it compatible with the object and purpose of the
convention to remain as contracting governments after having taken the clear position that whaling should be banned regardless of the status of different whale stocks," Stefan Asmundsson, Iceland's delegation head, told the opening session of the meeting.

Japan, which came to the meeting with a 49-member delegation - more than twice that of
any other nation - and 17 other countries said the IWC was acting outside its brief by relegating Iceland.

Some of the smaller Caribbean nations flatly accused it of riding roughshod over national
sovereignty and behaving illegally.

The meeting urged Norway - co-leader with Japan of the pro-whaling faction in the 43-nation organisation - to cease hunting Minke whales, a practice it unilaterally resumed in 1993.

Norway shrugged off the weakly-phrased motion as it has done in successive years.

The meeting, which resumes next year in Japan, rejected for the second time in successive years the creation of two new southern hemisphere whale sanctuaries to add to the existing Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean sanctuaries.

Such a move would have required a three-quarters majority to have got through, whereas normal motions require only a simple majority.

As the organisation stumbled through the week with accusations by environmental groups
that Japan had been rigging results, voting patterns became clear.

The main whaling nations voted together, supported almost always by the small Caribbean nations, prompting the Greenpeace environmental group to warn somewhat
excitedly of an imminent resumption of the hunt.

"This buying of votes has gone too far. If it goes on like this we may be only months away from witnessing the resumption of full scale commercial whaling," a spokeswoman told Reuters.

Story by Jeremy Lovell