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Hogarth and the Whale Wars

It’s not easy being the point man for the International Whaling Commission. Trying to mediate 84 nations embroiled in a political dispute takes time away from the real issue: the whales.

When William Hogarth was elected to chair the world’s whaling regulatory body in 2006, relations between delegates had grown so rancorous that meetings would erupt into childish shouting matches. Factions accused one another of lying. Petty insults flew, coffee breaks were painfully quiet and few attended evening receptions.

“It’s just very tense over whales,” the soft-spoken University of South Florida dean said.

Decades after the height of the commercial whaling industry, negotiations between pro and anti-whaling countries are stalemated. Japan continues to kill whales for “scientific research” and is reluctant to reduce the number it takes from the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. Anti-whaling nations want them stopped.

The battle plays out annually in the Arctic waters, where seafaring activists clash with Japanese ships. The two have become so combative that they are the subject of an Animal Planet reality show, aptly titled “Whale Wars.”

Hogarth now finds himself at the center of the controversy. A biologist who has managed fisheries throughout his career, the 70-year-old is shaking things up, bringing in outside conflict resolution experts and working toward a compromise that has riled both sides and brought calls for his resignation.

“I did it in the best faith,” Hogarth said. “I’ve done what I think is right. I would love to leave with my job in June as chair thinking that I made a difference in the IWC and made it better for the whale populations, made it better for future management and whale conservation.”

The native Virginian started off studying wahoo and striped bass, large, steely fish that were popular among recreational fishermen in the South. He followed their life cycle in streams and in the oceans off North Carolina, where he became director of the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries in 1986.

Hogarth describes himself as a conservationist at heart. Through the years, he’s been at the helm of disputes involving countless species. Turtles. Red snappers. Shark. Few have escaped his watch, first as a state director and later as an administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s hard to manage fisheries because you’re affecting people’s livelihoods and then it just gets into the politics,” he said over a recent lunch. “It’s sort of like, ‘Manage it, but not in my backyard.'”

In North Carolina, where commercial fishermen raked in millions from shrimp, flounder and weakfish, any discussion about fishing regulations generated heated debate. To address overfishing, Hogarth spearheaded a moratorium on all fishing licenses. The reaction?

“People were yelling and screaming,” said Robert V. Lucas, who was chair at the state’s Marine Fisheries Commission at the time. “There were people who said, ‘It’s about time, that this should be done, it’s out of hand.’

“And there were other people saying, ‘This is like communism,'” he recalled.

It was, perhaps, an early lesson in negotiating the political waters of fisheries management. In the end, the moratorium went through. But it didn’t win Hogarth any political clout.

He resigned shortly thereafter. Within months, though, he was working as a biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“The irony is he actually wanted to solve some of these problems, and by trying to solve them it really cost him his job,” said Bruce Freeman, who became division director several months after Hogarth resigned.

The International Whaling Commission was created in 1946 at a time when commercial whaling had driven many large baleen species to near extinction. To conserve and rebuild their numbers, delegates agreed to protections for individual species, and later a moratorium on commercial whaling.

From the start, the 1986 whaling ban created a rift between nations with a history of hunting and eating whales and those that had come to view them as an intelligent and sacred species. Some nations filed objections; aboriginal populations like the Alaskan Eskimos were still granted a limited catch, and Japan continued to kill the mammals under an exemption allowing nations to issue permits for scientific research.

Pro-whaling countries believe many species are plentiful enough to continue hunting them; minke whales – those largely hunted by Japan in the Antarctic – are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands. Others, like the North Atlantic right whale, have barely recovered, numbering just a few hundred at most.

Those tensions surface every year at IWC meetings. Among diplomatic circles, the whaling commission has a reputation for being particularly contentious. The U.S. has been accused of having a double standard – allowing Alaskan Aborigines to hunt but refusing to support Japanese whaling. Japan, meanwhile, is accused of using the scientific whaling exemption as a guise for continued commercial whaling hunt, as the meat is sold for consumption.

The result has been years of heated meetings, filled with yelling and name calling. Sir Geoffrey Palmer of the New Zealand delegation described it as an “absolutely poisonous atmosphere.”

Hogarth was reluctant to take the job. He was, after all, already chair of The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and a NOAA administrator, two big jobs.

“I’d heard enough about the IWC to know it would be very difficult to change,” he said. “That people were pretty headstrong about the way they felt. It’s basically a one-issue commission. You believe in whaling or you don’t.”

But Hogarth came on board and took a laid-back approach that appears to have started the thaw of icy relations between delegates. First, he decided he needed help to address some of the perennial issues facing the commission, whaling by scientific permit among them.

Last year, he consulted an outside expert, who recommended Alvaro de Soto, a Peruvian diplomat who’d served at the United Nations for more than two decades, helping to broker peace in El Salvador in the early ’90s and serving as the Middle East envoy before his retirement. Commission members had viewed Alvaro as being impartial.

Alvaro advised the commission to meet in a smaller working group: 84 nations were far too many to hold productive negotiations.

In February, Hogarth and Alvaro issued a report proposing that Japan be permitted to conduct limited coastal whaling off its shores in exchange for reductions in the Southern Ocean. The idea has generated considerable criticism.

“This is sort of like saying to bank robbers, ‘We’re going to allow you to rob the banks in the North but you really have to cut down on your robberies in the South,'” said activist Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Hogarth hasn’t endorsed it yet, and the Obama administration has signaled it will take a tough stance on whales.

“The United States continues to view the commercial whaling moratorium as a necessary conservation measure and believes that lethal scientific whaling is unnecessary in modern whale conservation management,” White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley said a statement.

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Paul Kline has called for Hogarth’s resignation.

“It doesn’t reflect the sentiment of Americans and the position of our new administration,” he said of the proposal.

Hogarth expects to resign in June after the commission’s annual meeting.

Even if a settlement isn’t reached, members say he’s helped move them in the right direction. For the first time in many years, delegates are talking civilly. At a recent meeting in Florida, members actually attended an evening reception Hogarth arranged at a restaurant.

The days of yelling seem to be behind them – for now, anyway.


One response

  1. It doesn’t sound like being the head of the IWC is a very enviable position. There is only so much you can do given the environment. You can’t keep everybody happy no matter what you do. If you do what is right, you are bound to upset somebody. I guess it comes with the territory, but at least Mr. Hogarth appears to have made some progress, just by getting everyone to be civil for once. Hopefully, this will help break up decades of gridlock.

    April 10, 2009 at 2:12 am