'Whales are not giant meatballs'

2008-07-28 00:00

SOMEONE with real-life experience of the IWC is UKZN senior law lecturer Ed Couzens, who was a member of last year’s South African delegation which met in Anchorage, Alaska.

Couzens, who co-ordinated the exercise, said the simulation at UKZN mirrored reality. This, he wrote in a report, was reflected in “the unsuccessful attempt by Japan to have a secret ballot proposal adopted; an unsuccessful attempt to reopen commercial whaling on a restricted basis; and finally, the adoption, by consensus, of a watered-down resolution, which would nevertheless have heartened its proponents.”

“And when the delegate representing India told the Pietermaritzburg forum that whales should not be regarded as ‘giant meatballs’, he was making reference to an actual comment made during a past sitting of the commission,” he said.

According to Couzens, increased involvement in the IWC of countries with no obvious interest in whaling — like Mongolia, Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati, and Austria — means that 81, or nearly half of the world’s states, are now members. “This means that a new range of motives and interests come into play at meetings,” he said.

South Africa used to be a “big whaling” nation, but is now firmly anti-whaling. “I’m told that up until 1975, you could watch the whales being pulled into the harbour from Howard College,” said Couzens.

Today, South African’s position on whaling might seem inconsistent if viewed against its support for an ongoing commercial ivory trade, said Couzens. “The official line is that we believe in sustainable whale use, but the use to which we put whales is whale-watching. The general South African approach to sustainable use of natural resources arguably causes the country difficulties in the face of the pro-whaling argument that taking certain whale species is sustainable.”

The IWC has no arbiter or mechanism for dispute resolution. This means that while membership of the commission is voluntary, so – to a large extent – is compliance.

What is it about whales that evokes such passion? “It’s their size and intelligence, and the savagery with which they were hunted for centuries,” says Couzens. “In the sixties, the world started to realise the devastation done to whales. People also started to understand how intelligent they are.”

Couzens said the highly structured song of the humpback whale, for example, and the sperm whale’s social structure which has been shown to be similar to that of elephants, fascinate humans. “These issues do grab people and that’s why parts of the pro-whaling world argue that anti-whaling is based on emotion rather than science,” said Couzens.

Couzens, who calls himself an “accidental academic” with a lifelong interest in nature and wildlife, said his interest in whaling began in 1997. Then a qualified attorney on an African backpacking adventure, Couzens was in Harare at the time of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting when the downlisting of African elephants to allow for international trade in ivory dominated the agenda.

“Two things struck me,” said Couzens. “The first was that two of the strongest countries supporting the southern African position on ivory were Norway and Japan. While Japan’s interest in ivory as an end user was obvious, the position of Norway was less clear. The second issue was that a vote was taken to downlist a whale species to allow for trade. More countries voted in favour of the downlisting of the whale than there were members of the IWC at the time.”

Those two “sparks” stayed with him and when he became an academic, Couzens started examining more closely the links between international treaties governing whales and those governing elephants. It’s a link which has given him a focus for his PhD research, hopefully to become a book.

What he found in his research was a pattern of behaviour which suggested that pro-whaling countries such as Norway and Japan were playing off the IWC and Cites against each other and seeking to use the resumption of international trade in ivory as a precedent to resume whaling.

Couzens describes the whaling scene at the moment as “quiet” with most member countries being relatively happy with the status quo.

“The Japanese are legally taking more Minke whales for ‘scientific research purposes’ (they currently take about 2 000 per annum) than they would get if commercial whaling resumed as this would be subject to heavy restrictions. Norway and Iceland have reservations and are not bound by the IWC’s restrictions anyway, and anti-whaling Western countries like the United States have bad environmental records and get credit with their vocal environmental lobby groups for sticking to their anti-whaling stance. NGOs on both sides of the debate use the issue to raise funds. So there is little impetus for breaking the current impasse.”

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