Member governments of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) should seriously consider proposals to end two decades of deadlock, says IWC chairman Cristian Maquieira. By giving some ground, he argues, anti-whaling nations might secure a better deal for conservation.
In the acceptance speech I gave a year ago when I was elected to chair the International Whaling Commission (IWC), I reminded IWC commissioners that they represented not only their governments but also the hopes and aspirations of their respective populations regarding whale conservation.
I also pointed out that the international community watches what the IWC does and how it protects whales.
As chairman, I took on the challenge of trying to bring the 88 member governments together around a common vision, to bring an end to two decades of whaling effectively outside international control.
I anticipated in my speech that the task was enormous and the outcome by no means evident or certain; but I also believed the challenge was worth pursuing in case it could usher in a situation that most parties would find more acceptable than the current stand-off.
The intervening year has seen many formal and informal sessions of a group of IWC member governments representing the various regional interests at play (including pro- and anti-whaling countries).
Seven weeks ago, IWC vice-chair Anthony Liverpool and I jointly issued a paper to help frame what could be an IWC consensus decision.
Two weeks before the decisive final sessions of the IWC's annual meeting start in Agadir, Morocco, the outcome continues to be uncertain; and yet for whales, for whalers and for everyone interested in the issue, a great deal is at stake.
The most essential ingredients of the potential compromise that the vice-chair and I presented seven weeks ago are these:
* all whaling to be brought under IWC control for a 10-year period, with countries agreeing not to go hunting unilaterally under provisions such as "scientific whaling" and to abide by quotas set by the IWC
* quotas to be set considerably lower than current levels
* establishment of a comprehensive set of control measures, such as observers on ships, and DNA registers of harvested whales and market sampling to detect and deter illegal whaling
* whaling only permitted by the three countries already doing it (Iceland, Japan and Norway)
* subsistence hunting by indigenous peoples unaffected
The vice-chair and I described our paper as "a starting point for further discussions and negotiations rather than a firm proposal."
We warned that, naturally, "there is a tendency for governments of all persuasions to take a position that 'we' have given up more than 'them'".
We encouraged governments to examine our proposal against the status quo that has dominated the IWC in the last two decades.
In this status quo, despite the existence of an international moratorium on commercial whaling, three countries catch whales outside of IWC control and will presumably continue to do so unless we find a common way forward in Agadir.
We asked everyone to try and avoid evaluating our proposal against their own strongly-held principles.
What we are seeking by bringing all whaling under the control of the IWC is to reduce significantly the number of whales killed and to promote whale conservation, especially of the most endangered species and including support for whale sanctuaries.
Whaling countries say they would be conceding a lot if they relinquished what they consider to be their rights under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling - to catch whales for scientific purposes (Japan) or under objection or reservation to the moratorium on commercial whaling that was adopted in 1982 (Iceland and Norway).
On the other side, countries described as "anti-whaling" fear to be seen as caving in on hard-fought conservation measures, especially the commercial whaling moratorium and the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary.
A crucial ingredient of the "package" is the actual quotas to which the three countries would agree to adhere.
THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Harpoon. Image: BBC
Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat
We inserted example numbers in our submission.
Like some of the other ingredients, they have aroused strong passions in different quarters: but as we said at the time, they are just examples, and are up for negotiation along with every other aspect of the package.
It is always difficult to say whether a glass is half full or half empty; but what is clear is that for a solution to be found, no country must come out with a feeling of humiliation, and the future of whale conservation globally must be guaranteed.
No one can win everything, and no one can lose everything.
So far, all the IWC member governments that have commented have spoken against what we're proposing, regardless of whether they want to catch whales or whether they want to reinforce whale protection.
That was expected - we never said it was our first choice either.
It is now time, however, for governments to speak together about what they are ready to achieve collectively.
I am aware that it would be a very bold step for countries with strongly held views in favour of whale protection to consider that the three remaining whaling countries might be allowed to continue some form of hunting under the aegis of the IWC.
I am also aware that it would be an equally bold step for the three whaling countries to relinquish what they see as their existing right to go whaling and set their own quotas.
The lively discussion that has ensued since the vice-chair and I issued our proposal is exactly what we wanted and what we expected.
In the 21st Century, international policy cannot be well-informed and effective without public accountability and the engagement of civil society.
That's what I meant when in my acceptance speech last year I referred to the public's hopes and aspirations.
Those aspirations and hopes differ markedly depending on what side of the fence one sits.
But if any of the different stakeholders feel we have not given them a fair hearing, we are bound for failure.
There are now less than three weeks left before 25 June, the last day of the IWC meeting.
My hope is that by that time, member governments will have listened to each other, and to civil society, and they will be in a position to adopt a decision that shows openness and wisdom - and helps ensure the conservation of whales across the oceans for this generation and those to come.