Much whaling and gnashing of teeth

    The International Whaling Commission may be messy, but it's the only game in town.

    Marine biologists at this month's annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) at Ulsan in South Korea will require considerable patience and fortitude. “It's like banging your head against the wall,” complained one scientist there for the preliminary scientific-committee meeting.

    The main bone of contention at this year's meeting is a proposal by Japan to double the scope of its ‘research whaling’ programme — its thinly disguised arrangement to continue some whaling despite a moratorium on commercial whaling that the IWC implemented in 1986 (see Nature 435, 550; 2005). The plan may get a sympathetic hearing at Ulsan because pro-whaling nations now seem to have a majority on the IWC for the first time (see page 861). This has come about because 23 new members — some with a dubious interest in whales, dead or alive — have joined the IWC in the past five years, taking its total membership to 62. Whaling opponents whisper that Japan “goes shopping”, as one of them puts it, for small, poor countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu in the south Pacific to join the body in exchange for aid.

    It is unlikely, however, that the new composition of the IWC will lead to radical changes in whaling rules, which would require a three-quarters majority. Japan's research programme was never actually approved by the body in the first place; Japan has sometimes chosen to brush the IWC's non-binding views on the matter aside. “Resolutions adopted by the IWC against Japan's whale research programmes are political statements that have nothing to do with science,” sniffed Joji Morishita, a spokesman for Japan's fisheries agency, in a statement issued during the meeting.

    Opponents of whaling continue to regard Japan's research programme as an affront to conservation efforts, and Japan has been hard-pressed to come up with convincing, peer-reviewed articles supporting it. Now it says it needs an even larger programme to address the demands of the IWC's scientific committee. More sophisticated analysis requires a greater sample size — who can argue with that?

    Given all this chicanery, one might be tempted to ask why researchers should bother to spend so many long days and nights in South Korea engaging in the IWC process.

    But buffeted by criticism as it may be, the IWC continues to implement the international regime that stands in the way of unregulated whaling — and of the probable extinction of several whale species. Before the moratorium, Japan's yearly quota of minke whale in the Southern Hemisphere was 1,941; under its proposed research programme, it would catch 935.

    And despite its grouching, Japan wants to be seen as a good international citizen; it is unlikely to pack up its marbles and go home. It will remain at the table, infuriating its opponents at times but basically conforming with an imperfect international process. Conservation biologists should do likewise, cajoling more friendly nations to sign on and grimly adhering to the only path that can, in its convoluted way, save the whales.

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    Much whaling and gnashing of teeth. Nature 435, 856 (2005).

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