The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has proposed what it calls a 10-year peace plan.
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The proposal aims to broker a compromise in the ongoing dispute between countries opposed to whaling, such as the UK, and those that continue to hunt the mammals.
Iceland and Norway hunt whales commercially, setting their own quotas, while Japan exploits a loophole allowing it to catch whales under an exemption for scientific whaling.
But the proposal, which will be debated at the IWC’s annual meeting in June, has come under fire from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, which compared the compromise to “a shoplifter negotiating with Tesco about which items it’s OK to steal”.
Willie Mackenzie, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, told The Herald: “It’s a way of actually legitimising the loopholes that these guys already use.
“What there isn’t … is a recognition that species which are endangered shouldn’t be killed. And there isn’t a recognition that the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is a place where we shouldn’t kill whales.
“What they’re actually talking about is reducing the numbers, not stopping it. What they’re trying to say is: ‘We retain the ban on commercial whaling, but we sanction whaling’.”
Collectively, Japan, Norway and Iceland cull an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 whales a year.
Cristian Maquieira, chairman of the IWC, said the proposed quota system would allow for strict limits on whaling.
He said: “As a result, several thousand fewer whales will be killed over the period of the agreement.”
But the wildlife charity WWF said the plans allowed the hunting of endangered fin whales and sei whales, whose numbers have been severely depleted by commercial whaling, calling this “management madness”.
It also criticised moves to endorse whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which is a feeding ground for species including blue whales, humpback whales and fin whales.
Heather Sohl, of WWF UK, said: “If there is one place on earth where whales should have full protection, it is the Southern Ocean. Allowing whaling in an area where whales are so vulnerable goes against all logic.”
Claire Bass, of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said: “The fact this proposal is even being discussed shows just how far out of touch the IWC is with modern values. It misses the point that blasting conscious animals with exploding harpoons is grossly inhumane.”
Susan Lieberman, of the Pew Environment Group, said: “The safe haven of the IWC-declared sanctuary -- and the IWC’s moratorium on commercial whaling -- should be set in stone, not set aside.”
But she added there were positive elements to the proposals, such as considering the recovery of depleted stocks.
How much the whalers catch Japan Targets around 930 minke whales, which are not under threat, and 50 fin whales -- which are endangered -- each year. Japan says hunts are part of a scientific research programme, but excess meat is sold for consumption.
Norway Resumed commercial whaling in 1993 after declaring itself exempt from the IWC ban. Claims its minke whale hunt is small-scale but last year culled 484 whales out of a quota of 885. It has upped its target this year to 1,200.
Iceland Resumed commercial whaling in 2006, with a target of nine fin whales and 30 minke a year. Escalated hunting in 2009, leading to a total cull of 125 fin whales. Maintains local stocks are high enough to permit some hunting, despite the endangered status of the fin whale.