By Gemma Handy
Whale meat doesn’t appear on a single menu nationwide and Antigua and Barbuda’s only relationship with whales is when the majestic humpbacks make their graceful way past the islands on their annual migration path.
So why is the twin island nation leading a crusade this week – 5,000 miles away in Slovenia – to reconsider a four-decade ban on hunting and killing whales for meat?
Fury erupted among environmentalists worldwide on Monday when the country submitted a resolution at a meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to reopen formal debate on resuming commercial whaling.
If successful – wildlife protection groups told Observer yesterday – Antigua and Barbuda will reel from the level of global condemnation. They say the move would spell disaster for the creatures which were brought to the brink of extinction by hunting prior to the ban.
Many people have been quick to call out ostensible hypocrisy too. The country’s pro-whaling stance appears to be in flagrant contrast to Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s strident speech at last month’s United Nations General Assembly in which he dubbed climate change the biggest common threat to mankind and demanded the world do more to protect the planet.
Whales play a key role in the health of oceans where they help provide up to half of our oxygen.
The Antigua and Barbuda delegation claims its mission is to boost food security by broadening the range of available meats worldwide that can be fished.
Environmentalists say, conversely, studies show that whales in fact help sustain fish stocks by spreading nutrients that benefit other marine creatures.
Backing whaling is nothing new for Antigua and Barbuda which has voted in favour of the practice at previous IWC meetings in a show of support for its ally Japan which has a tradition of such.
But perhaps never before has it led the charge, says Rebecca Regnery who is attending the IWC as part of a Humane Society International delegation.
In addition to calling for formal talks, Antigua and Barbuda has co-sponsored another resolution with Cambodia, Guinea and the Gambia arguing whaling could help address poverty.
“They are very much playing a leadership role this time,” Regnery tells Observer. “They say their purpose is looking out for poor developing countries that depend on marine resources, including possibly whale and cetacean meat, for food security.
“What anyone who’s spent any time at the IWC knows is that Japan spends a lot of money on infrastructure, especially for fisheries, in many countries and then makes it’s a quid pro quo that if we fund infrastructure that helps your country, we expect you to support our position at international meetings in return.”
Antigua and Barbuda has had close ties with Japan for decades. The twin island nation was represented last month at the funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and has often praised Japan for its help funding fisheries infrastructure here.
At the last meeting of its dozens of member countries in Brazil in 2018, the IWC rejected a proposal by Japan to lift the moratorium which has been in effect since 1986. Japan left the commission in 2019 and is no longer bound by the restriction.
“If the moratorium were to be lifted we would be very concerned because there aren’t adequate regulations, restrictions, monitoring or surveillance measures in place to ensure whale stocks aren’t decimated again like they were in the past,” Regnery continues.
“And that’s on top of increasing threats that whales are facing today, like bycatch in fishing, ship strikes, pollution and marine debris, and of course climate change.”
The issue is due back on the IWC’s table today and a vote may also take place. However, it’s unlikely to be successful as most of the 48 countries eligible to vote are opposed to whaling.
In addition to Antigua and Barbuda, those in support of lifting the ban include several other Eastern Caribbean countries, plus Norway, Iceland, and a handful of African nations.
Antigua and Barbuda’s IWC Commissioner Daven Joseph acknowledges some countries “may not have the stomach” for whaling.
But he tells Observer, “We and other Eastern Caribbean nations believe that we should not single out any maritime species and give it special attention unless it is deemed endangered or at least threatened.”
Joseph says research indicates that numbers of humpback and minke whales are healthy enough for some commercial whaling to resume.
“We want to re-examine the moratorium and set a quota other than zero, with strong surveillance measures in place,” he explains, adding that the proposal calls for a steering committee to scrutinise the issue over the next two years.
But that does little to appease Regnery who adds, “If they are successful I think Antigua and Barbuda will receive extreme backlash from the global community for their role in this.
“However they don’t have the votes to make it happen. I think maybe it’s a gamble they’re willing to take because they probably don’t think it’s going to become a public issue.”
Nicolas Entrup, who is also in attendance at the IWC meeting as Director of International Relations for wildlife body OceanCare, agrees.
“The reality is that such a process has already failed twice before,” he tells Observer.
“Antigua and Barbuda is not a whaling country, so why should it engage in it. We regret that for many years Antigua and Barbuda has become kind of the spokes-country in support of whaling interests by Japan.”
Entrup says climate change is already putting “these long living and slowly reproducing marine mammals under extreme pressure”.
He adds, “If successful, such an initiative by Antigua and Barbuda would have ramifications on its reputation.”