Save the Whale all over again

PUBLISHED: 10:42 17 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:02 22 October 2010

From Save the Whale to whale burgers, the future of the great whales is looking less secure than it has for 20 years. SARAH BREALEY looks at one of the icons of the environmental movement.

You can think of the Hollywood optimism of Free Willy or the populist tragedy of the London whale - either way, these enormous creatures have become icons which speak more of power and freedom than simple flesh and blood.

As the International Whaling Commission continues its talks, a struggle is mapped out between the two visions of the whale - the beautiful creature with a strange affinity to humans, or the mound of steak, blubber and oil. The fear of conservationists is that the second version will win.

And with Japan building a pro-whaling majority among commission members, that scenario looks increasingly likely. What will not happen is uncontrolled whaling, at least not yet. Japan and its allies do not have the 75pc majority needed to overturn the ban. But once they have control of the commission, they can pave the way for changes - initially abandoning some conservation measures, and introducing a secret ballot system, instead of the open voting that happens at the moment. That would make it more likely that the whaling lobby can succeed.

Even Japan says it does not want a whaling free-for-all - although on the other hand, this is a country that interprets "scientific research" as killing nearly 900 whales a year, most of which end up on dinner tables.

The director of whaling negotiations at its Fisheries Agency Jouji Morishita, said: "Overturning the ban has some misunderstanding: it sounds like there would be no control. But overturning the ban from our point of view is a resumption of managed whaling."

The 70 members of the IWC have a difficult balance to strike. Few people in Britain want to see the full-scale slaughter of whales. On the other hand, Japan is threatening to pull out altogether if the ban is not overturned. Commission members will have to ask themselves which is worse - making concessions over whaling, or losing Japan's co-operation altogether and leaving it to go its own way on the warpath against whales, like Norway, the only country to openly defy the ban.

The shift in the balance of power at the IWC has come about because of new pro-whaling members, including some land-locked countries. Fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw said there were "many well-documented examples" of governments and individuals being offered aid or cash by Japan to encourage them to join. He is urging EU nations to join the International Whaling Commission to stop Japan getting a majority.

He said: "I would hope that all of the EU countries would join, because - although there may be an argument about landlocked countries - every country has an interest in the sustainable manage-ment of our marine environment."

Mr Bradshaw and others claim that interest in whalemeat has plummeted in Japan and that much of the expensive delicacy is being stored in freezers. On the other hand, one Japanese whale restaurant has come up with new ways of serving it - whale burgers and whale hotdogs, which are apparently selling like the proverbial hot cakes with Japanese youngsters.

The debate can seem a long way away from life in East Anglia, although a few may have spotted a sperm whale off our coast, or washed up on a Norfolk beach. But there are reasons why even those who have never seen a whale need to care. The whaling ban is 20 years old, and is still one of the biggest achievements of an emerging environmental movement. Save the Whale was a rallying cry for the 80s, symbolising a realisation of the damage humans were inflicting on the planet. These days the challenges seem bigger than even the mighty whale - widespread pollution of the oceans; lives at risk from flooding and others at risk from desertification; climate change and all that it entails.

It may be that amid the concern about carbon dioxide emissions and melting ice-caps, marine mammals have fallen down our list of priorities. But if the whale slips through the net of our concern, we will all be the poorer for it.

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