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A shoddy way to decide the future of the whale nation

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A shoddy way to decide the future of the whale nation

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The jamboree is back in town. IWC delegates are settling into the comforts of the conference suites, as they gather today in St. Helier, Jersey, ready for another week of false furore over the future of the whale. False, because the International Whaling Commission (IWC) really does appear to work in a parallel universe, divorced what most of us would consider to be the real issues around whale conservation.

Just consider the doublespeak of the language used. The IWC aims to conserve 'whale stocks', not simply 'whales' implying the value of a whale being seen purely from an economic point of view. Wholesale slaughter of sentient, intelligent and social beings, is termed 'scientific whaling'.

And 'subsistence indigenous whaling,' which conjures up images of heroic and sympathetic struggles between man and beast, to put food on the plate, contrasts with the spectacle of bloodied seas and pink foam, at the annual Faeroe Islands pilot whale hunt.

The spectacle of the IWC itself over the few decades is no less edifying, if a little less brutal. As a voluntary international body, open to all-comers, it has swung from wildly from one side to the other on the 'kill vs save' debate. It was when the plight of the whale first made its mark on public consciousness, back in the 1970s, that the cozy whalers club was changed dramatically.

Many non-whaling countries joined, and the anti-whaling lobby successfully 'stacked' the IWC with the votes needed for a moratorium on whaling. But since that 1986 halt, the pro-whaling nations, led by Japan have evened out the balance; and money has since flowed on both sides of the debate.

The IWC has become hopelessly deadlocked, split 50:50 as smaller nations were pressured, or induced, to back one side or the other. A dark game of chess has been played out for the last two decades, with accusations of foot-dragging, vote-buying and dirty tricks flying thick and fast.

Meanwhile, those who wanted to carry of the hunting, such as Iceland and Norway, have simply done so - either with the fig-leaf of 'scientific whaling', or without it. This year's IWC meeting is supposed to be a 'wound-licking' affair, after the tumult of last years meeting, when the pro-whaling lobby pressed hard for an ending to the moratorium. There are some hopes for some small reforms to the body, to try and clean up its behavior.

But the question remains, is the IWC really fit-for-purpose? Is it up to the job of deciding the fate of intelligent creatures, whose affinity to us is shown to be stronger, with every scientific study? What this body has failed to say, boldly and clearly, is that whaling is abhorrent to the majority of peoples in the global village.

We have learned to love whales and dolphins and despise those who slaughter them for commercial gain. After nearly three decades of dodging the issue, it appears the IWC is unable to grasp this thistle, at the heart of the matter.

So it is not the technical language of the IWC, 'sufficiently sustainable stock' or 'quotas for harvesting' that needs to be heard. The real issue is that, in the global commons of the high seas, world opinion is firmly against whaling on moral grounds. That opinion should be reflected in a proper legal framework, through an international treaty, under UN auspices. A treaty with real teeth.

That's the very least that the gentle (or fierce) giants of the sea deserve from us, who have pushed them, within living memory, to the brink of extinction. And certainly not the shoddy and grubby maneuverings of the back-room boys at the IWC.

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