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Waiheke Gulf News feature (pages 9-10) Sandra Lee

13 July 2000 Media Feature
Waiheke Gulf News feature (pages 9-10):
"Working towards a South Pacific whale sanctuary"
Minister of Conservation the Hon Sandra Lee of Rocky Bay comments on last week's International Whaling Commission annual meeting in Adelaide.

Saving whales from being hunted to extinction is proving as tough a political battle as any I have fought so far. I can make that observation from experience having returned recently from this year's International Whaling Commission annual meeting in Adelaide, at the head of New Zealand's largest-ever IWC team. An unprecedented five of our group of 10 were Maori, including Youth MP Marama Karetai of Waiheke Island who celebrated her 17th birthday a few days after our return home. Her Adelaide experience has provided Marama with a political baptism-of-fire that will stand her in good stead when the 120 Youth MPs gather in Wellington next month for this year's Youth Parliament (on 28-29 August).

We turned out in force in Adelaide because New Zealand and Australia were jointly proposing this year that the IWC establish a South Pacific whale sanctuary to complement an existing Southern Ocean whale sanctuary. The logic behind the proposal was to give whales added protection in their South Pacific breeding grounds as well as their Southern Ocean feeding grounds.

It was always going to be difficult first time to get the three-quarters majority support required under the IWC rules. From the 35 countries that eventually turned up, we needed at least 24 "yes" votes. We had no doubt that the countries favouring commercial whaling initiatives under pretexts such as "scientific whaling" like Japan and Norway would lead the charge against our sanctuary proposal. The existing Southern Ocean whale sanctuary, which lies below the latitude-40-degree-south line that passes through Wanganui, had to be put up four times to the IWC before it finally gained sufficient backing. And the requirement to obtain a three quarters majority set a very high hurdle for us since every vote against the sanctuary effectively neutralised three votes in favour.

The High North Alliance, a lobby group representing whalers in Norway and other artic countries, had signalled the likely approach of the IWC's pro-whaling nations in the week before the Adelaide meeting. One pro-whaling goal was to impede the creation of a global whale sanctuary by blocking initiatives such as our proposed South Pacific whale sanctuary.

One factor we hoped might swing some critical undecided votes our way was the scientific information we knew would be presented to the Adelaide meeting on the populations of the pacific's whales.

After deliberations before the main conference, the IWC's Scientific Committee advised delegates in a formal report that new analyses of data showed that the Southern Hemisphere population of minke whales was much lower than had been previously thought. The Scientific Committee concluded that there was now no reliable estimate for the minke whale population, despite assertions by some pro-whaling nations that the number of minke whales had increased. The scientific information also indicated that the populations of great whales in Polynesia were probably the most depleted in the entire Southern Hemisphere, largely as a result of illegal whaling activities over 40 years ago.

We spent an intensive 72 hours before the formal vote on the proposed sanctuary lobbying those "swinging" countries we thought might vote against us to consider abstaining, while lobbying the potential abstainers to instead vote "yes". When the vote came, we found that South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Sweden, who all appeared likely to abstain, voted "yes" instead. I was particularly grateful for the South African vote, which followed a personal approach I made from Adelaide to the honorary consul in Wellington, Gregory Fortuin who put me in touch with a key ANC leader. I regret that we were not able to reciprocate to allow soccer-mad South Africa to host the 2006 World Cup.

As you may have learned already, the vote for the proposed South Pacific whale sanctuary resulted in 18 nations voting "yes". Some 11 nations voted "no", four abstained, and two countries—Italy and the Solomon Islands—were absent from the room when the vote was taken. The small island states from the Caribbean—St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, as well as Dominica—had block-voted with Japan, Norway, Denmark and the Peoples Republic of China against the sanctuary proposal.

Some fall-out from the South Pacific whale sanctuary voting came shortly afterwards, when Dominica's Environment and Fisheries Minister Atherton Martin resigned stating that his IWC delegation had defied a Cabinet decision that they should abstain on the vote. He suggested a possible link between Dominica's vote in Adelaide and Japanese aid to his country. The environmental group Greenpeace was far less diplomatic, making serious allegations of Japanese "vote-buying". The Japanese IWC delegation was quick to point out that countries receiving substantial aid from Japan such as India, Brazil and Argentina did not align their voting with Japan's.

I gave notice in Adelaide that New Zealand would again propose the establishment of a South Pacific whale sanctuary at next year's IWC annual meeting in London. I am now much more aware that key IWC member countries such as the small island states of the Caribbean, see New Zealand's whale sanctuary proposal as somewhat extreme, despite the scientific evidence indicating there appear to be far fewer whales in the Southern Hemisphere than we had thought. The experience of New Zealand's IWC team in Adelaide has made us even more determined to continue the battle to safeguard the future of a 30-million year old mammal species that has lived in our seas far longer than the three million years mankind has walked the earth.
[ends]

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