08/20/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

One for the Whales


Greenland is out to kill whales. It's hard to really understand why. It's true they have been allowed some 'subsistence' whaling. The idea is that native people who are dependent on whales for food should still be allowed to take some whales.

One might question this idea of subsistence whaling in the 21st century. The indigenous people in Greenland don't live in primitive dwellings. They don't hunt whales with kayak and spear. They don't depend on eating whales. Instead they live in modern houses. They hunt whales from boats with powerful engines. They use modern weapons that would be at home on a battlefield. And the whales they kill often feed the dogs, as do the seals they kill. As the Greenlanders have become more prosperous and numerous the number of husky teams, culturally prestigious items, have increased. That means a lot of meat for the dogs, and so the seals and whales suffer.

A lot of the 'subsistence' whale meat also winds up in restaurants and shops, according to an undercover study by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, as an alternative to burgers and beef. So the people of Greenland hardly need to kills whales to subsist.

But Greenland has been trying to increase its kill. And Greenland has had the help of Denmark. Normally the Danes are sane environmentalists, but there is another narrative here. Greenland is a Danish territory. Historically Denmark wasn't too interested in Greenland and might have been happy with Greenland going independent. No longer. The Danes are mad for Greenland's resources. As the Arctic warms and the glaciers melt, rich oil and gas fields open. There are even stories in circulation of people picking up rubies when glaciers retreat, perhaps apocryphal but well illustrating the frenzy around Greenland mineral wealth. So Denmark is happy to do anything to placate Greenland and the whales become a hostage to carbon politics.

A couple of years ago in the International Whaling Commission, team Greenland-Denmark tried a good legal wheeze to increase the kill. Subsistence whaling is tied to the size of the indigenous population. So they offered a new definition of indigenous: Suddenly any human being resident in Greenland from any ancestry and indeed recent arrivals were to be declared indigenous and deeply in need of killing their own whales to subsist. This game didn't work.

In 2010 they asked for an increase in killing humpbacks and the endangered fin whale, a magnificent rare creature, the whale just below the blue whale in size. Denmark moved the increase. The European Commission tried to convince EU Member States that they had to agree their position on this increase unanimously, otherwise none of them would be allowed to vote in the International Whaling Commission decision. This would have meant that most European countries would have had to abstain, and the motion for increasing the kill would have won in the International Whaling Commission.

It so happens that this is entirely contrary to EU law. Why did the Commission give such false advice on the law? It can only be guessed (we do not know anything for sure) that here the whales were hostage again to political power play -- a struggle for influence between the European Commission and EU Member States.

So there we are in the International Whaling Commission two years ago. The Commission is about to entertain the motion to increase Greenland's kill. This was high stakes -- playing with a false legal position to kill whales. Remarkably the EU countries didn't understand the voting mechanism themselves so they were willing to trust the 'official' legal position. They would have abstained and whales would have been on the menu.

At the last minute, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society called in ClientEarth and overnight ClientEarth lawyers wrote a legal opinion contrary to that of the EU, showing that their legal services were misrepresenting the law. It was one of those rare John Grisham moments -- the ClientEarth opinion was brought into the International Whaling Commission meeting, causing pandemonium, and the vote was postponed.

This year team Greenland-Denmark was at it again, demanding an increase in kill. This year they lost. On the fourth day of the International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama on July 5th, Greenland's request to be allowed to kill more whales was put to the vote: the result was 25 in favour, and 34 against, 3 abstentions. The EU was part of the 34 that voted against. In fact, not only were Greenland disallowed an increase in quota -- they were refused any quota at all.

This hasn't happened since 1977. A real victory for conservation of humpback and fin whales, which well illustrates that legal leverage in the right place at the right time can make all the difference.

Of course there will be a next fight for the whales, unless human beings become a gentler species in the meantime, and I'm not banking on that.