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Kiwi Minnow Takes On Whaling Giants

By Hon Sandra Lee, Minister of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand.

Despite New Zealand's small size we are widely regarded internationally as one of the staunchest advocates for the protection of whales. We shall be demonstrating that again when we go head to head with whaling nations Japan and Norway next week over our joint proposal with Australia for a South Pacific whale sanctuary. As Conservation Minister, I am leading the New Zealand delegation to the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission's decision-making Plenary Session, in London from 23-27 July.

This year New Zealand will also co-sponsor a new initiative by Brazil for the creation of a South Atlantic whale sanctuary. Taken with the existing Southern Ocean whale sanctuary --which circles Antarctica--and the existing Indian Ocean sanctuary (established in 1987), the adoption of the proposed South Pacific and South Atlantic whale sanctuaries would result in the great whales gaining protection from IWC commercial whalers in most of the key feeding areas, breeding grounds and migration routes throughout the southern hemisphere.

When we first proposed the South Pacific whale sanctuary at the IWC meeting in Australia last year, we were supported by 62% of voting delegations. Unfortunately, the IWC's rules require a 75% majority for a sanctuary to be approved, and Japan and Norway were able to muster a 'blocking minority', largely thanks to the IWC's Caribbean members--six small island states that consistently vote with the pro-whaling lobby. These states share many of the aspirations and values of their South Pacific counterparts, and they are becoming increasingly discomforted by intensive media scrutiny because of their opposition to the South Pacific whale sanctuary proposal. Much to the distress of Japan, its overseas development assistance--especially for fisheries projects around the world--is often linked in news media reports to voting trends at the IWC and other international conventions relating to fisheries and trade in wildlife. For example recent New Zealand newspaper headlines include "Japan admits buying whaling votes" (Herald-1st ed., Auckland-19 July), and "Japan admits whaling bribes" (Dominion, Wellington-19 July).

The New Zealand government's mandate to pursue the South Pacific whale sanctuary proposal has been strongly endorsed, both at home and regionally. More than 100,000 New Zealanders signed a Greenpeace petition presented to Parliament last year in support of the proposal. New Zealand's long-standing whale conservation policies have consistently attracted broad political support domestically. The current IWC Commissioner, Hon Jim McLay, is a former leader of the National party. Besides the governing Labour and Alliance parties, the Greens are also strong supporters. As recently as April, Ministers and government representatives from the region met in the Samoan capital Apia and provided their full support for our South Pacific whale sanctuary proposal to be progressed.

In New Zealand, opposition to the sanctuary has come from the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission, Te Ohu Kai Moana, which is a member of the pro-whaling organisation, the World Council of Whalers. A generous Norwegian government grant was provided for last year's WCW annual meeting, hosted by TOKM in Nelson. Sadly TOKM has been reproducing misleading Japanese information, going by what has been appearing recently in its policy papers and in the media within New Zealand.

To set the record straight on a few key issues: · The Antarctic feeding grounds south of Polynesia were recognised by all whaling nations as a sanctuary from 1937 - 1954, so the large whales of the South Pacific were the last relatively pristine populations to be hunted by industrial whaling fleets, and have had the least time to recover; · Contrary to Japanese media releases, whale populations are not growing rapidly everywhere. In particular, in the South Pacific many species remain severely depleted; · Minke whales are often touted by Japan as being an abundant species. But the IWC's Scientific Committee agreed last year that the 1992 estimate of 760,000 minkes in the Southern Hemisphere was no longer valid. The most recent estimates suggest that the true number could be as low as one-third of this; · Nobody knows whether this reduced minke abundance reflects changes in survey techniques or an actual decline due to environmental factors such as climate change, or a combination of both. But a precautionary approach, such as the establishment of a whale sanctuary, is clearly called for; · Establishment of a sanctuary would have no effect on indigenous rights, because it would only bind IWC members. The only country in the South Pacific with a tradition of subsistence whaling is Tonga, which banned whaling in 1978, and stated very clearly at the Apia meeting in April that there is currently no likelihood of a return to whaling, in part because of their remarkable success in developing a thriving whale watching industry; · Contrary to the misleading information that has been provided to the region, a South Pacific sanctuary would have no impact on the region's valuable tuna resources - the great whales feed only in Antarctic waters, and fast while in their tropical breeding grounds. Whales are not fish. They are highly intelligent, long-lived and slow-breeding mammals, with complex social relationships. Not only are they a cultural icon for many Maori and South Pacific peoples, they are also a major tourist attraction. The successful growth of whale watching in Tonga is a clear indication of the potential economic benefit that will accrue to other countries such as the Cook Islands and Samoa if whale populations are allowed to recover. It is regrettable that Japan, which has killed more whales from Polynesia in their Antarctic feeding grounds than any other whaling nation, and its supporters remain committed to opposing our efforts to make some kind of amends.

Whales have swum the oceans of the earth for more than 30-million years. The world we bequeath to our children, and to our children's children, will be substantially poorer if we fail to recognise that when it comes to whale conservation we are a "last chance" generation, and must act now to secure the future for these great leviathans of the deep.

Ends


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