The diplomatic action being considered by Latin American countries belonging to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) will apparently be too late to prevent another slaughter of these mammals taking place.
Latin American governments are considering a bloc response to the Japanese whaling fleet's departure for Antarctica, in a new season of what it claims is "hunting for scientific purposes" and which threatens to kill 1,000 whales in the protected Southern Ocean sanctuary.
But the diplomatic action being considered by the countries of the region belonging to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) will apparently be too late to prevent another slaughter of these mammals taking place, just as it has in previous years, conservation organisations complain.
Last week Japan authorised the departure of the whaling fleet, in spite of ongoing negotiations at the IWC about whether or not whaling for scientific purposes should continue to be permitted. Conservationists want to eliminate the "scientific" loophole that Japan uses to supply its home market with whale meat.
On the other hand, countries in favour of whale hunting want to lift the moratorium on commercial whaling, in force since 1986. The Commission is so polarised on the issues that neither side can reach the two-thirds majority of votes required to change the rules.
However, Latin America is working hard. All the countries in this region are in favour of whale conservation, and as a group they are at the forefront of actions to end whaling. Their prominence is reflected in the appointment of the current IWC Chair, Cristián Maquieira of Chile.
At the prompting of the region, a Small Working Group on the Future of the IWC was established, which met in October without reaching a consensus on the issues dividing the body. It is due to meet again in Chile in December. But the early sailing of the Japanese fleet was seen as a bad omen by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
"If Japan had not set out for the Antarctic, it would have been a welcome gesture of goodwill," Roxana Schteinbarg of the Argentine Whale Conservation Institute (ICB) told IPS. To embark on a whaling expedition in the middle of negotiations "is a mockery," she said. "We are very concerned about the silence on the part of governments."
José Truda Palazzo, formerly an IWC commissioner for Brazil and now the Brazilian representative of Chile's Cetacean Conservation Centre, said "it's time to put an end to immobility." While the commissioners debate, the whalers "carry on slaughtering whales with impunity," he said.
A joint communiqué issued Nov. 11 by 40 Latin American NGOs, including those to which Schteinbarg and Palazzo belong, exhorted the regional governments in the IWC (every country except Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela) to prevent further whaling by Japan.
The civil society organisations called on the countries of the region to "lead diplomatic action against the indiscriminate slaughter of whales."
When they sent their message, the conservation organisations assumed that the Japanese fleet would not leave port until mid-December, when the whaling season usually starts, and they hoped to dissuade it from setting out. However, they were taken by surprise when the factory flagship, Nisshin Maru, with its catcher boats made an early sailing Nov. 19.
The ships headed for the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which surrounds Antarctica and was designated a protected zone by the IWC in 1994, with a total ban on all commercial whaling. The only IWC member country to vote against establishing the sanctuary was Japan.
Since the IWC approved the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan has harpooned more than 8,000 whales in the area that was later declared a sanctuary. Taking into account the whales hunted by Iceland and Norway, a total of 20,000 whales have been killed during the moratorium.
This season Japan will probably kill an estimated 1,000 whales, similar to the numbers hunted in 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, according to the IWC, and perilously close to the whale catch in the Southern Ocean before the moratorium, when there were virtually no restrictions, Schteinbarg said.
The NGOs also complained in their communiqué that last season the Japanese fleet captured over 300 female whales, 63 percent of which were pregnant.
IPS asked officials from three countries, who work closely on these issues, whether Japan would be condemned for its actions, and they said it was being considered. "The issue is under consideration within the Buenos Aires group (of Latin American countries belonging to IWC)," said a Brazilian source close to the commissioner, without enlarging further.
An Argentine source who wished to remain anonymous said that Latin American commissioners "are in contact with each other and are considering what to do," but warned that the final response could take a while, because "coordination takes time."
"The British spent three or four months coordinating a formal diplomatic protest against Iceland," the source said. "And if what is wanted is serious political action that will have some impact on Japan, it needs to be well prepared."
The source pointed out that half a dozen such actions have been taken against Japan so far, but have had no effect at all.
For instance, the first action of the Buenos Aires group, formed in 2005, was to condemn Japan for sending its whaling fleet to Antarctica, and yet it continues to do so to this day.
"NGOs often think that just writing an open letter changes the situation, but unfortunately the world does not work that way," the source said, stressing that for the first time in 20 years the IWC is negotiating the issue of scientific whaling, which in the view of the governments is a mark of progress.