Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The whaler wears no clothes

I told Sue Lieberman yesterday that I was not sure if Charles Clover's Pearl Harbour analogy in The Sunday Times to describe the bullying by Japan of this month's CITES conference would hit the right chord in Tokyo. She said, "probably not, but it certainly felt that way".

Although there are differences of opinion on whether it is right (and productive) to draw a straight parallel between the current debate over the conservation and management of Atlantic bluefin tuna and the decades-old whale conservation policy debate, it's hard not to note the similarities of Japan's political strategy at CITES this month with this country's past approach at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) as The Guardian pointed out a few days ago.

The Atlantic bluefin tuna has been brought to the brink of extinction in the last decade by increased worldwide human consumption driven by a combination of factors including high consumer demand in Japan and elsewhere, unsustainable subsidies in the European Union, and poor enforcement of catch limits and other regulations around the Mediterranean Sea.

The proposal to put Atlantic bluefin tuna on CITES’ “black list” of species that cannot be traded internationally, sponsored by the Principality of Monaco and supported by the United States and the European Union among others, was largely seen as a last ditch opportunity to save this iconic species which has been a source of food and wealth for the people of the Mediterranean for thousands of years.

It was also hoped that Japan as well would see the proposed trade ban as a long term opportunity, because – as the worldwide fisheries crisis continues to unfold – the outlook is bleak for this country’s feeding patterns largely dependent on the availability and supply of marine resources. For example, a study published in 2003 in the scientific literature suggests that up to 90% of the biomass from large predator fish species has already vanished (download the large Pdf file if you want to see the whole report). So, in short, it was hoped that Japan would agree to a measure that could reduce its supply in the short and medium term, because it would be immensely beneficial to Japanese food security in the longer term. But Japan favored short term corporate benefit instead, and bullied the CITES Convention.

Of course, it is not the first time Japan takes the risk of tarnishing its international reputation amid a controversy about the use and conservation of marine resources. Whaling is the most obvious case that comes first to mind. Japan has been taking heat for nearly 40 years since the first UN Conference on the Human Environment held in 1972 called for a moratorium on commercial whaling, an activity Japan is currently the only country in the world to carry out in the high seas. Ten years after the 1972 conference, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) established a legally-binding moratorium, but Japan has always found ways and pretexts to evade and to continue killing whales. Japan’s most contentious whaling operation takes place every year in the Southern Seas – a whale sanctuary or no-take zone for whales recognized by the international community with the exception of Japan whose factory ship has been targeting a growing number of nearly 2000 whales annually in recent years. Our contemporaries in Japan have lost their apetite for whale meat, but the Japanese Fisheries Agency continues to subsidize the whaling at great expense, even though there is reportedly a big stockpile of unsold frozen whale meat in the country.

In the last three years however, the Japanese administration showed signs of willing to seek a compromise whereby they would accept to respect international law and regulations if in exchange they were allowed to carry out what they call small-type coastal whaling. Whether this would mean that Japan would accept to stop catching whales in the Southern Ocean sanctuary and elsewhere in the high seas is still subject to negotiations within the framework of the IWC. It is hoped that this will be clarified before this year’s IWC annual meeting in Morocco in June. Japanese officials now recognize that their past whaling activities were unsustainable and caused irreversible damage to the whale resources. They’ve repeatedly pledged that they would limit and control whale catches to “sustainable levels.”

Until now, a significant number of countries within the IWC have shown some sympathy for Japan’s “sustainable whaling” claims. And some that traditionally oppose commercial whaling, like New Zealand for example have made real efforts to try to accommodate Japan’s concerns in a bid to bring whaling back into international control and to eliminate whaling in the Southern Ocean. These “whale peace talks” are due to conclude in three months in Morocco at the end of June, but now the joint Japan-Libyan coup d’état against the CITES Convention might have brought a blow to the willingness of the IWC to believe Japan’s “sustainable whaling” claim. Japan’s coup at CITES reminds the worst acrimonious times in the past history of the IWC, and it’s almost impossible not to extrapolate. Under IWC rules, a population of whales brought down to 15% of its original size would automatically be protected and any catch would be banned. 15% is what is thought to be left of the Atlantic bluefin tuna’s pre-industrial fishing population, so why did Japan so adamantly campaign to prevent a trade ban that would have eased the pressure on the species? If this is the vision of sustainable management and good marine stewardship of Japan, do they also have a hidden agenda with the “whale peace talks”? Unless it does something drastic before the IWC meeting in June, the risk is for Japan to be seen like the whaler with no clothes.

[To make that point, maybe the environmental NGO observers at the IWC should all take off their clothes at the opening of the meeting]

The Japanese Government has only a few weeks left to prove that it genuinely wants a truly sustainable whale deal at the IWC this year, and that it will not bully the IWC in Morocco like it just did with CITES in Doha. The most obvious way to restore trust would be for the Japanese Government to announce its willingness to give up its costly high seas whaling operation in the Southern Seas. This would be an effective confidence-building move, and one that could benefit to the Japanese coastal communities who catch whales on the Japanese shore and are presently suffering from the unfair competition of the heavily subsidized high seas operation in the Southern Seas. In the event that the IWC would agree that some coastal whaling could take place in line with recommendations from its Scientific Committee and in recognition for Japan’s effort to move out of the Southern Seas, it would be a win-win for the Japanese Government: it would preserve local whaling traditions and eliminate a highly costly and unnecessary high seas whaling operation.

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