Sir Geoffrey Palmer: Japan's whale policy a mystery to us all

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Sir Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand's Commissioner to the IWC, says that contrary to Japanese assertions whale stocks remain severely depleted.

I am pleased my colleague, Japan's Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission Mr Morimoto, has laid before the New Zealand public his justification for Japan's policy on whaling.

I shall be surprised if the New Zealand public agrees with it.

The moratorium adopted by the IWC in 1982 was adopted because unbridled commercial whaling had destroyed whaling stocks and brought many species to the brink of extinction.

Japan dislikes the moratorium and wishes to overturn it and resume commercial whaling. But that requires a 75 per cent majority of the members. Japan does not have sufficient support from the member nations to achieve this goal.

Japan therefore resorts to a loophole in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, Article VIII, which allows a nation to give itself a quota to kill whales for the purposes of scientific research. These killings are exempt from regulation by the convention.

No one could reasonably believe it was ever the intention of this provision in the convention to allow a nation to take 1000 whales each year as Japan is now in the course of doing.

Indeed, if all nations in the world took 1000 whales each year, the stocks would soon be exhausted. What gives one nation the right to a larger portion of the resources of the planet that all nations hold in common?

For Japan's commissioner to characterise New Zealand's position wrongly is unfortunate. It is hardly likely to lead to more harmonious relationships at the IWC.

The chair, Dr William Hogarth of the United States, is engaged in a heroic effort to bring some peace and order to this troubled organisation.

Preparations for the chair of the commission's efforts to heal the rifts at the IWC are unlikely to be assisted by Japan's current activities in the Southern Ocean.

The motivations for Japan's policies are a mystery to us all. Japan and New Zealand have an important and harmonious bilateral relationship. It is a pity the issue of whaling divides us.

New Zealand rejects the notion that it has sacrificed the principles of science-based management to appease non-government organisations.

Throughout my more than five years as commissioner, I have insisted that our policies and approach should always be based on sound science and sound legal principles.

Mr Morimoto suggests that the IWC's scientific committee has endorsed the Antarctic "scientific whaling" programme (Jarpa), which it has twice reviewed. The 1997 interim review and the 2006 final review both concluded that the results from this programme are not required for management under the IWC's revised management programme (RMP), which would set the quotas for various whale stocks, should commercial whaling ever resume.

The reviews also concur that the Jarpa programme does have the potential to improve the management of Southern Hemisphere minke whales, but only to allow more whales to be caught.

A close examination of the report of the final review, posted on the IWC website, suggests that even this potential is not being achieved, and provides some damning comment. For example, under various the headings including:

Elucidation of the role of whales in the marine ecosystem.

"The simple nature of several of the analyses presented at the present workshop means that relatively little progress has been made in addressing the role of Antarctic minke whales in the ecosystem, even allowing for the complexities of the subject."

Estimation of biological (life history) parameters to improve the stock management of the Southern Hemisphere minke whale.

"The workshop cannot conclude that this objective has been fully met."

Stock structure

"The workshop cannot conclude that this issue has been resolved for Antarctic minke whales in the Jarpa research area."

Natural mortality

"The estimation of natural mortality was the main initial objective of Jarpa [research]. However, the confidence limits around the current estimate spanned such a wide range that the parameter is still effectively unknown."

In fact, despite its 18-year history and the deaths of almost 7000 whales, the Japanese Jarpa programme has failed to meet any of its stated objectives, and has contributed very little to our knowledge about whale stocks and whale biology.

Far more has been learned and published in reputable scientific journals from long-term non-lethal research programmes, including in New Zealand and the South Pacific.

These paint a very different picture of the status of whale stocks in the Southern Hemisphere and their ability to withstand a further round of commercial whaling.

In our part of the Southern Ocean, most of the populations of great whales that were taken by the commercial whaling fleets of the 1800s and 1900s are not abundant - they remain severely depleted.

With the exception of minke whales, none of them is even at 20 per cent of its abundance in 1900, and many remain below 10 per cent.

Sightings data for minke whales suggests that their population may have declined by 60 per cent or more over the past two decades, for unknown reasons. In fact, despite many years of sightings cruises and data analyses, there is still no agreed abundance estimate for minke whales in the Southern Ocean.

How can whaling possibly be sustainable if the number of whales in the population cannot be accurately measured?

New Zealand does not agree that "indispensable data" is being collected by Japan in its "scientific whaling" operations. The revised management programme does not require the data ostensibly being collected by Japan, even if their research was meeting its objectives (which the scientific committee agrees it is not).

In fact, the International Whaling Commission has passed resolutions about Jarpa at five of the past seven annual meetings.

These resolutions have been highly critical of the programme's lethal aspects, and have called for Japan to stop killing whales in the name of science.

The most recent resolution, drafted by New Zealand, was adopted at the June 2007 meeting by 40 votes to two. Japan always ignores these resolutions.

In the face of such international opposition and scientific criticism, however, Japan has continued with this programme of spurious research, and has added endangered fin whales and humpback whales to the target list.

Although Japan has agreed not to kill humpback whales this season, it has given no undertakings about next year, when the fleet will be hunting in the Ross Sea area, the feeding grounds for humpbacks that overwinter in Pacific Island countries such as Tonga and the Cook Islands.

Whale-watching is now the single biggest earner of tourist dollars for Tonga, and it is estimated that a single whale can generate up to one million dollars in its lifetime.

Since the Jarpa programme kills whales that have for the most part spent much of their lives in Australian, New Zealand and South Pacific waters, it is hardly surprising that there is an increasing level of public concern in the region.

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