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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Santiago talkfest should focus on the right whale
Political capital is like many natural resources: it's a finite resource and needs to be managed carefully to maximise its value.
Environment Minister Peter Garrett is in Chile this morning, leading Australia's delegation to the International Whaling Commission. The Rudd Government has the wallet out in Santiago, splashing out big on the annual whaling pantomime with Japan. Its preoccupation with big symbolism is crowding out more urgent but less populist international fisheries management problems.
Blanket opposition to any type of whaling is an old argument dating back to the early 1980s, when continued over-exploitation pushed a number of species close to extinction. As it is, continued Japanese whaling under the scientific exemption to the 1986 moratorium is tokenistic rather than market driven.
Japan deliberately defies the moratorium to prevent the principles of customary law allowing other countries' policy agenda to overtake its own. The rules of warfare as defined by the Geneva convention were only a codification of accepted practices. Similarly, Japan's symbolic defiance is designed to undermine the moratorium and by extension other fisheries practices from becoming an accepted international custom. The harder countries such as Australia campaign, the harder the Japanese will retaliate.
There are more than a dozen different species of whale in the world's oceans, and the minke whales at the centre of Australia's moral outrage are the most abundant and classified as lower risk by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Once controversially described by Japanese officials as the "cockroaches of the sea", current estimates suggest there are about a million minke whales in the southern hemisphere alone. Japanese whalers took 500 over the summer.
More critically at this week's meeting will be an update on measures to prevent the extinction of the north Atlantic right whale, not from Japanese whalers, but from collisions with cargo ships.
There are fears that the critically endangered population of less than 300 whales is sliding to extinction because they like to swim in increasingly busy shipping lanes that include waters off the east coast of the US.
In response, the US Government has made a number of proposals to be considered next month by an International Maritime Organisation subcommittee. These include re-routeing shipping lanes away from the whales and negotiating regulations to control ship speeds in these critical regions. If Australia is lobbying the IMO to support these measures, then Garrett has failed to mention it.
If the Rudd Government wants to lobby for an international fishing moratorium, then it might be better off picking a species actually under threat from overfishing, such as the Patagonian toothfish. Found in the icy southern oceans of the world, they are a highly sought-after delicacy around the world, worth up to $1000 a fish.
Although the official management of the species allows small and sustainble quotas, the fish are so lucrative that illegal fishing may take up to five times more, exacerbated by the huge size of the fishery and established black markets. Australia already aggressively polices these waters and, unlike its symbolic evidence gathering against whaling fleets, is allowed to board and commandeer illegal vessels.
The plight of the toothfish or Chilean sea bass was temporarily made famous in 2003 when an Australian patrol boat embarked on a dramatic 6000 nautical mile pursuit of an illegal Uruguayan poacher. It was also made famous last year when it was revealed that Chilean sea bass was part of the menu at the wedding dinner of the daughter of eco-evangelist Al Gore.
Clearly, Gore, like most other consumers, was not aware of the environmental vandalism of his actions. The fact that someone like Gore can get it so wrong suggests more concerted international intervention may be required to prevent their extinction.
In the 20 years since the whaling moratorium and amid intensifying Australian rhetoric against Japan's whaling fleets, their blue-fin tuna fishermen were serially abusing international quotas that had been agreed to since the mid-1980s.
The whistle was blown on the Japanese fleets in 2006, not by tough rhetoric at international conventions but by Australian fisheries bureaucrats who had been monitoring the quantity of tuna turning up in Japanese markets for the previous 20 years: up to three times their quota, an extra $10 billion worth of valuable sashimi tuna.
The species is now classified as critically endangered. This year, for the first time at the Tunarama festival in Port Lincoln, the annual tuna-tossing contest used fake fish. The Japanese quotas have since been halved in retribution but the experience highlights the potential failings of relying on international agreements alone, particularly where valuable fish stocks are involved.
Australia could prevent a similar fate for species such as yellow-fin tuna and big eye through its leadership role at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, and while they're at it, get tough on the practice of shark finning and campaign for greater protection for sea turtles. All these species could use the help of "creative middle power" diplomacy. If only they could find one that wanted to help.
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Issues/Governance / management