Notes from the International Whaling Commission Meeting

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Whale songs last from five to 15 minutes. Many have rhyming sounds, which scientists believe may be mnemonic devices to help the whales learn and remember the songs.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC)
met in early June at the Hyatt Islandia hotel in San Diego.
This marks the first time the commission has held its
annual meeting in this country in nearly 20 years. Back
then, the United States was still killing whales, as were
perhaps two dozen other countries. Now, with a few
exceptions, killing whales is illegal. That could change,
as soon as next year.

The hotel sits on Mission Bay, a strangely artificial
estuary manicured from the former delta of the San Diego
River. The banks are riprapped, with occasional stretches
of sand beach. Neither a native plant nor a weed grows for
miles around. (San Diego must employ as many gardeners as
Hollywood does hairdressers.) The 15-story tower of the
hotel dominates the landscape for miles.

Commissioners trickle in over the weekend, joining
scientists who have been conferring and wrangling for two
weeks. Along with representatives from member nations come
observers from nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) like
Greenpeace, the International Foundation for Animal
Welfare, and the Humane Society of the United States. Many
of these people have been attending IWC meetings since
whale conservation became a popular cause among
conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts in the early

Sidney Holt is the patriarch of the whale savers. He’s a
marine biologist–white haired, rosy cheeked, British, and
blunt-spoken. Holt has been studying whales and fighting
for their protection for three decades.

At a press conference at the opening of the meeting, Holt
stares grim-faced into a bank of television cameras. “Ten
years ago we argued that whaling should stop because the
whales were in danger of extinction. I’m not sure I
actually believed that then. I do now.”

When the commission decreed an end to commercial
whaling–the moratorium was issued in 1982, to take
effect at the end of the 1985 season–the scientists’ best
guesses had put the population of fin whales in the
Antarctic at 100,000, down from an estimated 500,000 before
whaling began in earnest last century. The new data
released by Holt indicate there may be only 4,000 fin
whales in those waters.

The story of the blue whale is worse: When that animal was
protected from killing in 1965, scientists thought there
were something like 11,000 left of an original population
of around 250,000. “Now we think the blue whales number
somewhere between 200 and 1,100–probably around 500,”
Holt said. “In seven years, shipboard observers saw 23
schools of blue whales. A school of blue whales is one
whale, sometimes two. In seven years, covering more than
40,000 miles of ocean, the observers saw around 30 blue
whales. That’s all.”

Across the road from the Islandia the NGO’s are gathering.
In addition to those mentioned above are journalists from
Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute, who will
publish a newsletter that reports the day’s news. That’s in
direct contravention of the IWC’s rules, which ban
reporters from all but the opening and closing ceremonies.

This uninvited newspapering began in 1972 at the United
Nations’ historic environmental conference in Stockholm.
The present series will make up volume 47. This year, for
the first time, the newspaper staff is using computers and
desktop publishing programs, which will supplant a half
dozen volunteers who used to work half the night typing and
retyping stories and creating headlines by rubbing letters
one at a time off plastic sheets.

At five o’clock Sunday afternoon, 40 observers arrange
themselves in a small motel room to plan strategy. David
McTaggart, the chairman and founder of Greenpeace, fidgets
in the comer, trying to keep the conversation on track.
McTaggart is one of the shrewdest politicians in the
international environmental arena–a recent chum, it’s
rumored, of Mikhail Gorbachev. He’s short, tan, and fit.
He’s past 60 but could pass for 40. Easily.

The prominent issue at this year’s meeting is expected to
be an attempt by Japan to evade the moratorium by creating
a new category of whaling that is somewhere between
commercial whaling (which is illegal at present) and
aboriginal whaling (which natives in Alaska, Siberia, and
Greenland carry on legally). Japan wants the commission to
recognize and approve what it calls “small-type
whaling” whaling conducted in small boats from coastal
villages. Though many of the whale supporters express
sympathy with the littoral dwellers who have had to stop
whaling, none shows any sign of supporting a quota for

Japanese scientists have already admitted that more than
one-third of the area’s population of Dall’s
porpoises–nearly 40,000 animals–was killed last
year, and hint that the blame belongs to the IWC for
imposing the moratorium. People mutter about blackmail.

“Scientific,” or “research,” whaling is expected to
generate some angry words as well. Since the moratorium
became effective, Japan, Norway, and Iceland have issued
permits to themselves to kill whales for research (all
perfectly legal under the IWC’s most accommodating rules).
Roger Payne, who gave the whale conservationists an
immeasurable boost fifteen years ago when he released the
record Songs of the Humpback Whale, is utterly scornful
of this practice.

“The boats are the same, the whalers are the same. They
work for the same companies; they sell the meat to the same
people. This isn’t science; it’s commercial whaling by
another name. There’s nothing important you can learn from
a dead whale that you can’t learn from a live one,” Payne
tells several hundred people gathered on the lawn outside
the meeting. Country Joe McDonald, natty in red shirt and
white Panama hat, listens attentively, awaiting his turn to

At the back of room 624 in the Dana Inn, nearly hidden
behind a bank of pale gray boxes that issue faintly purring
noises, sits a man with lemon-custard-colored hair with jet
black roots. He is David Rinehart, production expert and
computer nerd. The first issue of the newsletter, ECO, is
getting its pajamas on. Soon, two people speed into the
night to deliver artwork to the printer.

A head appears around the door jamb, offering to read
proof. “Now is not the time to proofread,” says Rinehart
solemnly. “Now is the time to drink beer.”

The commission’s meeting proceeds deliberately. There are
subtle shifts of power evident, as when St. Lucia sides
with Japan on a procedural vote and France abstains. The
conservationists won the moratorium in 1982 by recruiting
new members for the commission in the early ’80s–membership
rose from 15 to 40 in that period, with most of the
newcomers joining to crusade against whaling. Now, many of
the late joiners are interested in other matters and have
stopped paying their dues. Only 27 nations sent delegations
to this year’s meeting, and several of them said they would
not return next year, partly because dues are going up 45%.
The attrition is entirely from the antiwhaling bloc, which
has conservationists worried.

The meeting eventually draws to a close Friday afternoon,
with no resolution of anything. The commission has again
deplored the scientific whaling programs of Norway,
Iceland, and Japan, but in such a way that has the NGO’s
uneasy. The denunciation seems less fervent than in past
years, tepid enough for the Japanese whalers’ public
relations specialist, Alan Macnow of New York City, to
claim victory in one of his daily press releases. (Yes,
spin doctoring has arrived at the IWC.) Macnow is
representing an NGO himself this year: Friends of Whalers.
It has one member. Alan Macnow.

The postmortem finds the conservationist observers subdued.
It’s going to be difficult next year to fend off requests
from Japan, Norway, and Iceland for permits to kill a few
hundred minke whales, the last of the oceans’ whales that
are still abundant.

The conservationists break down into two groups: One thinks
no whale should be killed no matter how plentiful its race;
another thinks a modest harvest is tolerable, so long as
the survival of the species is not endangered. Committees
are formed. Meetings are planned. Next year’s IWC meeting
will be in the Netherlands, and the following year’s in
Iceland–definitely hostile territory. The long,
grinding battle to save the whale continues. The question
is, have we already waited too long?

Tom Turner, a writer and editor with more than 20
years’ experience in the environmental field, is staff
writer for Earthjustice (formerly Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund), an
independent environmental law firm that represents
many organizations across the country. It is supported
by private donations. For more
information, contact Earthjustice.