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Humpback whaling in Bequia and the IWC’s failed responsibility

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by Marlon Mills
Friends of the Tobago Cays
Tue, Jul 3. 2012

Each year around this time, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meets to decide on matters pertaining to the planet’s whale populations and to monitor activities and oversee the compliance of nations permitted to hunt whales under the IWC’s Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) Regulations. The ASW facility was put in place to accommodate indigenous populations with a long tradition of whale hunting for subsistence needs.{{more}} Aside from this, the hunting of whales for commercial purposes is banned entirely by the IWC, due to overhunting in the last century, which caused many species to become critically endangered. The more recently imposed threats to the survival of whales are the rapid decline in environmental conditions of the world’s oceans, being caused by human activities across the globe, and the culling of thousands of whales each year by the Japanese, which, according to them, is for the purpose of scientific research and for which there is an apparent loophole in the IWC’s constitutional make-up.

On June 27, 2012, official representatives of St Vincent and the Grenadines to IWC presented a case or statement of needs to the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling Committee (ASWC) for the renewal of its hunting quota for humpback whales by the Bequia whalers. The matter will be raised before the main body (member nations) of the IWC for a decision at its Plenary to be held from July 2 to July 7, 2012. Without doubt, St Vincent’s request to the IWC will be sanctioned by the whaling nations and the Japanese and their usual cohorts, namely, Norway, Denmark, St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, St Lucia and Grenada. In making up the numbers, there may even be a few landlocked nations of Africa there to bring support to the quest of St Vincent this year, compliments of the Japanese Government.

As I pen this piece of writing, I am on a journey to Panama to form part of an observer delegation for the East Caribbean Coalition for Environmental Awareness (ECCEA). Joining me will be Louise Mitchell Joseph of the St Vincent National Trust and Paul Lewis, also representing the Friends of the Tobago Cays (FOTC). The ECCEA is one of many environmental groups from across the globe that makes this annual pilgrimage to IWC meetings, held in different venues around the world. In spite of the fact that NGO observers are not permitted to participate in the decisions taken by the IWC, the hope and contribution of our group is to bring a different kind of energy and message to the IWC than that of the official delegation of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

This year will be a very challenging one for St Vincent and the Grenadines, as a new report by the Animal Welfare Institute of June 2012 presents a scathing account of St Vincent’s record of IWC Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling infractions and the IWC’s failure to demand compliance by St Vincent and the Grenadines over a period of thirty (30) years, in spite of the IWC ban on hunting North Atlantic humpback whales by all ASW nations until last year, when it agreed to allow Greenland a quota of 19 humpbacks, a decision that is a source of contention for many of its members. According to the report, St Vincent was granted permission in 1987 to hunt these whales, on the condition that Bequia’s whaling operation would be brought to an end upon the retirement of its then last surviving harpooner, Othneil Ollivierre. Since then, the IWC renewed St Vincent’s quota six times, including twice after the death of the old whaler and even doubled the quota in 2002.

Among the charges outlined in the report are that the IWC permitted and enabled St Vincent and the Grenadines in such a manner that would never have been tolerated by any other country permitted to hunt whales under ASW regulations. The essential points being the fact that the hunt is not conducted by aboriginal people and until recent years, whales were only valued for the oil they produced and not the meat; the nutritional needs never properly stated (perhaps because they don’t exist); inhumane hunting techniques, causing prolonged pain and distress to the animal; targeting and killing lactating mothers, along with their calves; improper management of the flenching and distribution of whale meat and the selling of whale meat to tourists and other users on the main island of St Vincent and which according to the regulations, would be viewed as a commercial activity. More recently, the whalers have apparently been using speed boats to break up pods and separate mothers from their calves and in general to aid the hunt. Contrary to the recent practice, the ASW regulations are very specific to the type of boat that can be used and emphasizes the most humane killing methods to be deployed in the hunt.

According to the report, the Vincentian authorities have been extremely economical with the information they provide to the IWC in relation to the whales caught and those struck but not caught. ASW regulations require that every country operating under its ASW regulations must inform the IWC when a whale is struck and the size of any whale caught; provide information as to the time between the first strike and the death of the whale; the type of method/s used in the killing of the whale, including the number of strikes to any one whale and the type of equipment used and photographs of the fluke and DNA samples for identification purposes. Not surprisingly, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines authorities stand accused by the Animal Welfare Institute’s Report of being consistently delinquent on nearly every single requirement.

No one knows how much damage this business of whaling is actually doing to our Tourism Industry, especially in such critical economic times. It would seem that those in authority have gone to sleep in relation to tourism trends and global responses to environmental issues. One has to ask the question: Are the professionals who are employed by Government to advise on these matters actually doing their jobs? Or are we really dealing with a top-down situation where those in authority are not listening to the professionals?

If I were to go by the brief words shared between Mr Ryan and me while on our respective pilgrimages to the IWC, the former would be the most likely answer, since, according to him, he is not in favour of the killing of whales, but he is only doing his job. However, it is very hard to tell who is speaking the truth after the 2010 investigative journalism by the UK Times, which exposed blatant corruption on the part of some Caribbean nation’s representatives, by accepting favours from the Japanese in the form of luxury travel and accommodation, cash and even the services of prostitutes in exchange for their support of the Japanese agenda at the IWC. At the time of this exposure, Antigua’s Commissioner to the IWC was also serving as Acting Chairman of the organization, and he too admitted to accepting some of those favours. Is this the type of image we want to continue to project to the world?

The Japanese overt courting of these small island nations to support their agenda at the IWC is no secret to anyone. But for a developed nation to take advantage of the vulnerability of small and economically deprived nations, when such an agenda can damage that nation’s integrity and ability to sustain itself is not only highly irresponsible, it is criminal. And so are the local politicians who take our nations along this path. The IWC also has a very important responsibility to live up to as well.

What is certain is that we need to take the whaling shackles off our Tourism Industry in order for it flourish and bring benefits to the local economy, and the sooner we do so, the better off we will be as a nation. Today’s discerning traveller is very hesitant to patronize nature-based tourism destinations that habitually violate international human and ecological standards and regulations, and there are a growing number of organizations out there to keep them informed. We can find much more meaningful things to do with the human and financial resources that we are currently investing in maintaining a presence at the IWC. The time to put an end to this has long passed.

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