Monday, March 10, 2008

Grey whale

A few days ago my friend Allan Thornton sent me this old photo of the first press conference that ever took place on board the Rainbow Warrior after we had bought it. It was in London's West India Dock in January 1978 [thirty years ago!], several months before we would take out to sea to "save the whales" [Allan is the guy with the moustache on the photo; I am the young boy in his early twenties with a lot of hair on the left]. A photo from a time when the whaling issue was a truly black and white issue [pirate whalers all over the place, high catch limits set by the IWC in defiance of the UN call for a moratorium on commercial whaling, lack of public scrutiny and poor enforcement of established rules, etc].

Four years after this photo was taken, the worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted, and it entered into force after another four years, in 1986. The moratorium was and continues to be a success story, and the campaign that led to it has been a huge source of inspiration for the environmental movement. A success for which many people deserve a lot of credit.

In the world of today, whales face many threats other than whaling [they are expected to become particularly vulnerable to climate change -- especially in polar regions; they strand when they're disoriented by underwater noise pollution from seismic tests, shipping and military naval activities; they concentrate dangerous levels of chemical pollutants in their bodies; more cetaceans are caught as by-cacth in fishing gears than are hit by harpoons; a little known colateral effect of market globalization is the sharp increase in the number of whales "struck" by ever bigger and faster cargo vessels; etc. And of course it is wrong that under the terms of the old Whaling treaty of 1946 any member state can unilaterally set catch limits if it says it's "for science"]. With this myriad of factors affecting whales, whale conservation is increasingly complex; with added complexity it is becoming more a grey than a black and white issue. This is in part why with Pew we have encouraged a dialogue between pro- and anti-whaling countries in order to explore solutions.

Exploring solutions everyone [first of all, the whales] could live with is more difficult than maintaining the current status-quo, for sure. I red yesterday for example a report in the Independent-on-Sunday which reflects a willingness to maintain a strategy of tension. How realistic it is for people on both sides of the equasion to maintain such tension is an open question. [At the very least those who maintain a strategy of tension should not use farfetched arguments, such as the claim that the Tokyo and Heathrow talks were "secret" -- we even had journalists at the Tokyo talks, and the IWC had advertised the Heathrow talks on their website]

Everyone needs to engage in the dialogue, otherwise it will be doomed to fail. I'm glad the Australian Government is engaged. They've played and continue to play a key role, and they certainly need to be respected and heard. As the Australian Government suggests, with unilateral scientific whaling, the environmental integrity of the international whale conservation regime is increasingly undermined [and by extension, the moratorium on commercial whaling].

But the question to which we need an answer is: how can it be restored?

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