After coughing up a small fortune in expired membership dues, a Costa Rican delegation bundled up and set off for Anchorage, in the U.S. state of Alaska, to attend the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and vote against lifting a moratorium on whale hunting worldwide.
All but five of the commission’s 76-member countries attended the conference, though at press time, they had yet to vote on the 21-year old ban, which has outlawed whale hunting in the world’s oceans except for scientific research purposes.
Costa Rica had not cast a vote at a commission meeting in 22 years, after neglecting to pay its dues and mounting an impressive debt of almost $1 million.
In February, a coalition of environmental groups rallied support, gathered signatures and raised funds for the cause, urging President Oscar Arias to “vote for the whales” and teaming with the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) to pay off enough of the country’s debt for it to be able to have a say at the IWC meeting this week (Feb. 16, 2007).
“With this vote, Costa Rica regains its leadership role in environmental conservation worldwide,” announced Environment Minister Roberto Dobles May 25, the day before he left for Alaska.
The annual meeting, in which members from countries around the world decide on critical issues affecting whales, is a game of musical chairs, in which different countries swap sides and positions frequently – and often wait until the day of the conference to announce their positions.
“It’s very hard to predict the results of the vote, particularly when many countries keep their decision secret,” Dobles said.
Environmentalists fear that Japan and other pro-whaling countries may have garnered enough support to overturn the ban –hence the recent campaigning seen worldwide by groups such as Costa Rica’s “For the Whales” coalition.
In an editorial published last month in Costa Rica’s leading daily, La Nación, Japanese Ambassador Yoshihiko Sumi wrote that “excessive protection of whales is harming the marine ecosystem,” and that whales consume “three to five times more marine life” than the world’s human fishermen combined.
“Various international groups, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have initiated studies to look into possible harm inflicted on other species,” he said.
Such comments raised hackles among Costa Rican environmentalists, who have long suspected that Japan might be trying to influence Costa Rica’s position on whale hunting with generous aid packages (TT, Feb. 9).
“It’s completely absurd. There is simply no valid reason to continue to hunt whales,” said Randall Arauz, director of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), and a member of the For the Whales coalition.
The coalition believes that “neither Japanese communities nor the country depend on the hunting of whales,” and that if whales were such a threat to the rest of the world’s “seafood,” that they would have “finished with the ocean’s fish species long before whale-hunting began.”
The ocean waters surrounding Costa Rica, according to environmentalists, are critical feeding and breeding grounds for at least five species of whales from both hemispheres – and have recently become a well-known stop on the whale-watching circuit.
In 2004, the activity, which is centered in the southern Pacific, generated more than $4 million in tourism activity, and is growing, according to Sierra Goodman, of the Vida Marina research center in Drake Bay, on the Osa Peninsula. The center coordinates whale-watching tours – staffed with marine biologists – for hotels and tourism businesses in the region.
“Costa Rica is well known for its rain forest, but now people are beginning to realize how many whales and dolphins are here,” she said.
Environmental Minister Dobles said the world’s whale populations are worth more alive than dead – particularly in Costa Rica.
“We need the whales alive to help develop rural tourism in coastal areas, and to fight poverty,” he said. “This is an important step for Costa Rica.”