As delegates from 81 countries converged on the Chilean capital of Santiago this week for the opening of the International Whaling Commission's 60th annual meeting, the host government left little doubt about where it stands on the issue of protecting the planet's largest animal species. Chile's center-left president, Michelle Bachelet, journeyed to the Pacific Coast town of Quintay on Monday to sign two decrees designating whales as a national monument and extending indefinitely a moratorium on whaling in the waters off her nation's 3,100-mile-long shoreline. Bachelet also sent legislation to the national congress that would declare Chile's sovereign waters a permanent sanctuary where no whales or other marine mammals can ever be hunted or traded.
"Chile wants to send the world a clear signal about its will to protect whales," said the 56-year-old president, standing in front of a shuttered whale-products processing plant in the coastal community. "As this old whaling plant is an example of the world's past, when concern for the environment did not exist, this initiative shows our commitment to the world's future."
Bachelet's words seemed clearly aimed at one particular group of visitors who flew into the Chilean capital for the five-day conference. The Japanese delegation at the IWC parley is expected to lobby other countries to relax the moratorium on worldwide commercial whaling that the body imposed in 1986, and in this effort, Japan may not be alone. Norway continues to hunt down whales, and Iceland resumed some commercial whaling activity two years ago. But no other country has been quite as prepared to risk international opprobrium over this issue as Japan, which is allowed to kill up to 1,000 whales a year for "scientific research" under a loophole in the IWC ban. Tokyo wants the body to acknowledge the right of individual countries to engage in whaling along their own coastlines and has threatened to walk out of the IWC and unilaterally resume commercial whaling if a compromise can't be worked out by the end of next year's IWC meeting in Portugal.
"The way of thinking in each country is different," Joji Morishita, of Japan's Fisheries Agency, told a Santiago newspaper last week. "For example, in Japan, the deer is like a messenger from God, but in a lot of other countries, they hunt it for food. We don't impose our way of thinking on them. This is a question of accepting the coexistence of different cultures."
Most of the world's whale populations have benefited from the IWC moratorium, which took effect more than 20 years ago (some species have seen 3 percent to 8 percent growth). One of the most endangered species of all, the blue whale, has shown signs of a modest comeback: Relentlessly hunted by Japanese whaling fleets off Chile's southern shores as recently as the late 1960s, blue whales have returned to those waters in recent years, and at least 250 individual animals have been photographed and identified. That has inspired plans to create a large marine reserve to protect their breeding ground, which is centered off the northern coast of Chile's Chiloe Island.
Japan's insistence on its right to pursue whaling operations infuriates environmentalists and leaves others scratching their heads. Though polls show that most Japanese don't care much for whale meat, a hardcore minority does and defends whaling as a time-honored tradition that is worth preserving. Japan has ceased hunting endangered humpback whales, but Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has justified the yearly slaughter of hundreds of whales on the grounds of scientific investigation. Advocates of the IWC ban dismiss that contention out of hand, arguing that it isn't necessary to kill the giant mammals to study them. Tokyo's case is further undermined by evidence of whale blubber turning up on sushi menus and in Japanese school cafeterias. "You wouldn't know this wasn't commercial whaling because all the whale meat from scientific whaling is sold on the market," says David Phillips, executive director of the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute, which has lobbied for stronger conservation measures at previous IWC conferences. "And the so-called science is mostly unnecessary."
Activist groups continue to fight Japanese whaling operations on a variety of fronts. Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society dispatched boats to the waters near Antarctica to disrupt this year's hunt for nearly 900 minke and fin whales. The two organizations claim that their presence prevented the Japanese vessels from meeting even half of their kill quota. Late last week, two Greenpeace activists in Japan were arrested by Japanese police on suspicion of stealing whale meat. The activists acknowledged taking the meat, but they said they presented it to Japanese authorities in an effort to expose the illegal sale of whale products.
Any move to ease the moratorium would require approval from 75 percent of the IWC's member nations. And while Tokyo has sought support from smaller island countries in the Pacific and the Caribbean at the IWC meeting in exchange for more foreign aid, longtime observers doubt that the Japanese can muster enough votes in Santiago this week for the coastal whaling proposal permitting individual countries to conduct hunts in their sovereign waters. That is welcome news in Chile, where a recent poll by the market research firm Adimark found that 97 percent of respondents backed the creation of a national whale sanctuary. "Japan has never been weaker in a meeting such as this," says Juan Carlos Cárdenas, executive director of the Chilean marine conservation group Ecocéanos. Even so, it's doubtful anything that happens this week will curtail Japan's hunts.