Here begins the blog from the WDCS Team at the sixty fourth meeting of the International Whaling Commission.
There are thunderstorms in Panama City today. There are often thunderstorms here at this time of the year – not for nothing is this time of year called the wet season – and occasionally the adjacent roads have adopted characteristics more usually attributed to rivers than roads, complete with currents, eddies, gullies and water-borne debris including the occasional unfortunate visitor. Today the rain is relatively slight and so we are only lightly drenched and not in immediate danger of being swept into any of the human-sized drainage holes along the road side.
However, vast black clouds are towering over the impressive and highly varied sky scrapers that form the city centre and small flocks of noisy bright green parakeets swoop into cover when the rain begins to fall. They know it can swiftly become torrential and knock them from skies. Lightening sears the eye and thunder rocks the vast meeting halls of the El Panama hotel which is currently housing the meetings of the International Whaling Commission. Meetings have already been ongoing here for two weeks and until Monday they remain in ‘closed session’ and we cannot report from them but we can speculate on what the key issues are going to be in the coming week.
Indeed, the atmosphere inside the IWC next week may prove to be as stormy as it is outside. The IWC is currently facing a few not exactly minor administrative problems. There is, for example, currently no chairman for the meeting. And, after the walk-out last year by Japan and its allies (which they insisted destroyed its quorum) and stopped its business dead, there is no agreed way to avoid this happening again – although many lawyers from many countries have undoubtedly been busy working on this.
If we can get over these hurdles, the meeting will actually start and have to agree to its order of business and this too is no simple issue. Last year after the meeting was closed down prematurely, it was agreed that it could resume where it left off, which would be with the debate about the proposal for an IWC Sanctuary in the South Atlantic. Now the big problem with that is this is the same issue that precipitated the walk-out in the first place.
For some nations that have people that conduct whaling under the category of Aboriginal Whaling this meeting (the sixty-fourth annual meeting of the IWC) is a critical one. This is the year that their quotas have to be renewed and because the IWC may move to a biannual meeting cycle they are seeking renewal periods of six years rather than the usual five. This is where the infamous proposal from Denmark (on behalf of Greenland) to kill yet more whales will be considered and you will find much about this elsewhere on the WDCS website. But for any of the ‘aboriginal’ quotas to be agreed, the IWC needs to be functional and three quarters of those voting need to be in agreement. These all look like high hurdles for the IWC to leap right now!
Other key issues at the meeting include whether or not the IWC will support the proposal for a South Atlantic Sanctuary for whales which, for many years, has been championed by Latin American countries in particular and also whether the IWC will expand its programme of work on environmental threats. In this regard, WDCS and others have been encouraging more effort on addressing marine debris. This is a growing threat in the oceans and its effects on whales and dolphins are only poorly described, but there is reason to be concerned and it is the kind of issue where the IWC can make a difference.
Historically, the IWC has made its decisions by resolutions, although in recent years it has endeavoured (unsuccessfully) to do its business by consensus. We may see more voting at this meeting. Resolutions are passed by a simple (50% +) majority. There are two resolutions proposed for this year, one concerns marine pollution and its effects on cetaceans and their human consumers proposed by the European Union Countries and the other comes from Monaco. Monaco’s resolution calls on the UN to help sort out the problems at the IWC and is likely to be quite controversial.
So whilst we await the opening of the meeting on Monday and the lifting of the prohibition on reporting from here, let us tell you a little about where we are.
So, the IWC is being hosted by Panama and held at the El Panama Hotel in Panama City (so definitely in Panama). The hotel is in the business district of a bustling and sprawling modern city (complete with highly idiosyncratic tower blocks) and which marks the Pacific end of the famous Panama Canal. The Canal is of course the short route from the Pacific to the Atlantic (or visa versa) and is achieved via a series of massive locks (because one sea is a little higher than the other) and it helps to underpin the Panamanian economy. Some forty boats – mainly huge container vessels – transit each day. The average toll is apparently $100,000 and apparently fees are paid in cash. The canal is an impressive engineering feat and quite an awesome sight. It is also getting bigger as the Panamanians expand it to allow even bigger vessels to pass through.
Coming back to the immediate locality of the conference hotel – which comes complete with swimming pool and a selection of sunbathing tourists which the be-suited delegates will soon be trooping backwards and forwards in front of – the streets are lively mixtures of hotels, tourist emporiums and cell-phone vendors. However, the most significant local buildings are the two massive adjacent casinos: cavernous darkened halls lined with thousands of electronic gambling machines and guarded by various levels of security agents and croupiers. (Please be assured that the only reasons that we know about them is that this is where the only local cash machines – the ATMs – live.)
It is rumoured that small groups of elderly American tourists enter this places never to leave. Lured in by the pretty lights and the great god of chance they spend their remaining years wondering the halls quietly spending their pensions and occasioning happening upon the coffee bars for nourishment and toilets for relief but never quite finding the way out.
The streets around the hotel are a riot of honking cars and taxi proprietors shouting ‘taxi’ at anything that looks like a tourist, in case this shouting (and honking) encourages the tourist to use their service. There is also a remarkably high density of a number of what might be generous described as gentlemen’s clubs and, somewhat incongruously embedded amongst them, a rather good and wonderfully inexpensive vegetarian café. But this may be pretty-much as much of Panama City as we shall be able to share with you for sadly our blog is not likely to focus very much more on the world beyond the El Panama conference centre as – of course – we need to report what happens within, where we shall again be gambling with the lives of the whales. That is unless of course the meeting stalls, in which case we shall probably leap in a taxi and head for the rainforest that flanks the Canal and go and set up a small working group there with some toucans and the local white-throated capuchin monkeys and three-toed sloths.