SIX CARIBBEAN states have become the battleground for a huge international lobbying campaign to save at least nine species of whales. The conflict will come to a head in London in July, when pro- and anti-whaling nations square up over a proposed whale sanctuary in the South Pacific.
At a key meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Australia and New Zealand - strongly supported by Britain - will propose that a vast area of ocean should be permanently off-limits to whalers. The proposed sanctuary stretches from New Guinea halfway to South America, and from the Equator down to Tasmania.
Japan, which continues to kill large numbers of whales along with Norway, will vociferously object. And their objection may well succeed - as it did last year.
The sanctuary proposal was defeated in Adelaide, at the IWC's 2000 meeting, with the help of a group of Caribbean states: Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Dominica and Grenada. All receive substantial overseas aid from Japan.
Though a majority of nations were in favour of the sanctuary, the 18- 11 vote was not enough to pass the plan, which needed a three- quarters majority under IWC rules.
Four nations - including Ireland - abstained. This surprised observers, as the Irish have already turned their own territorial waters into a whale sanctuary. The Pacific sanctuary - if it is voted through - will add thousands of square miles to the two sanctuaries already agreed by the IWC, the Indian Ocean (1979) and the Southern Ocean around Antarctica (1984). It will protect all species of great whales found in the region: the blue, fin, sei, southern right, pygmy right, humpback, Bryde's, minke and sperm whales.
The advantage of sanctuaries - compared with the moratorium on commercial whaling, agreed by the IWC in 1986 - is that they are permanent. Moratoriums are anything but.
The latter may allow long delays - for assessing whale stocks and avoiding extinctions. But once the stock assessments have been done and negotiations on the management regime end (perhaps as soon as next year), the way will be clear for Japan and Norway to argue that the moratorium is no longer necessary.
Britain will remain "resolutely opposed" to commercial whaling, even if agreeing details of a regime under which it might be done. This was made clear by the Fisheries minister, Elliot Morley, who is responsible for whaling issues.
"We simply don't see any reason to restart commercial whaling," Mr Morley said.
"There is no need for it in terms of food, or commercial exploitation. We know that when it was done in the past it led to overexploitation and the collapse of stocks, and we are not convinced that the mechanisms would be in place to prevent this happening again."
He added that Britain was "strongly in favour" of the proposed South Pacific sanctuary, and that the Government is actively lobbying among IWC members - especially the Caribbean states - to secure the necessary votes.
The Caribbean bloc against the sanctuary at Adelaide caused considerable resentment from small Pacific island states who support it.
Mr Morley said: "There is a lot of anger among them that the proposal was wrecked." The minister has held meetings with senior Caribbean officials and politicians to argue for a change of position.
Last week, however, Japan issued a public protest at a lobbying campaign by Greenpeace, which has sent anti-whaling activists to tour the Caribbean on the environmentalist group's vessel Arctic Sunrise. …