Monday, March 15. 2010
Several years ago, on a bright cold morning in Kaikoura I took a very memorable whale watching trip with some IWC colleagues. Much optimism filled the air as the snow capped mountains pierced the blue sky and we anticipated the delights of the New Zealand coastline. We were very lucky. It was a special day in every way. We started the journey out to the deep sea-canyon water where the sperm whales are found, escorted by a typically exuberant group of dusky dolphins. We then saw several sperms whales. We watched them quietly whilst they gathered their breath and rested at the surface between dives. Along the way we also saw New Zealand fur seals, albatross and, as we neared the shore on our return, Hector’s dolphins. When the Hector’s dolphins came into view, the captain let the engine idle, allowing the passengers to take in the vista of mountains and sea, birds and marine mammals. Then, as if to make the point, although none needed making, over the PA system he put on the song ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong . This was a bright and optimistic time. A sense of positive change for whales was palpable.
New Zealander’s (Kiwi’s) are know for their practical approach – the ‘number eight-wire’ mentality – but also for taking a bold principled stance on issues such as disarmament, nuclear power, human rights issues and of course, traditionally, on whaling.
How then, in a matter of a few short years from this memorable day in Kaikoura, where anything seemed possible, do we find ourselves in a situation where the New Zealand government is now countenancing a compromise on whaling. Where has all the passion gone? Is it simple exhaustion? Has the war of attrition with the whaling fraternity finally worn down some of the whales’ staunchest allies?
Some suggest that there is something more sinister at play; that international relations with the USA and Japan are overshadowing the views of the person on the street in New Zealand, that these views are being lost in the mire of trying to help secure a longer-term aboriginal whaling quota for the USA.
But I still hold out some hope that isn’t the case. The Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said that he is going to ask New Zealanders what they think before NZ officials would be permitted to vote on any deal on whaling – although quite how he is going to do this is yet to be revealed. Does he plan to hold a referendum? It seems unlikely, and rather unnecessary, since polls on the issue demonstrate, irrefutably, that the majority of Kiwi’s are fundamentally opposed to commercial whaling.
The theory of the New Zealand deal makers appears to have its foundations in good intentions. The objective, the proponents argue, is an overall reduction in the number of whales killed. The argument seems to be that we are at a crunch point within the IWC and that a way to make a deal with the whalers, but Japan specifically, must be found, otherwise the whalers will leave the Commission and form regional management bodies that will ‘manage’ whales under regulations that the conservation-minded nations would be unable to influence.
But these threats are not new. In fact, such threats have been echoing around the halls of the IWC meetings for over a decade and there remains a great debate about the political and legal ramifications of such a move by Japan and its allies.
Do the deal makers really believe that the deal that is on the table is ‘do-able’? That the whaling nations can be trusted to act in ‘good faith’? What precedent for good governance of global resources would be set by rewarding endless infringements of the IWC rules by granting coastal quotas?
In talking about a potential compromise on whale killing – even with the objective of reducing the number of whales killed overall (something which is far from guaranteed by the current deal, and most certainly not in the long-term) – the NZ Government has created an expectation that under the right circumstances NZ would vote for a compromise. What this diplomatic shimmy fails to recognise is a point of principle. This principle is fundamental to the people of New Zealand – they do not approve of commercial whaling.
So where to now New Zealand? There is time for recovery from this incongruous position, but the government will need to act quickly and decisively to reassure its public that this administration still believes that protecting whales remains an important part of what it means to be a Kiwi.
Meanwhile, whales go about their business in all corners of the oceans.
And I think to myself…. What a Wonderful World.