Terrible risk for whales
The nations that make up the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meet next week to decide whether to allow whaling in Antarctic waters for the next decade.
If the decision does not go Australia's way, Japan will be legally permitted to hunt hundreds of whales each year until 2020.
There wouldn't be much anyone could do to stop it, and Australia's legal action against Japanese whaling would probably become irrelevant.
Australia has a plan to counter the pro-whaling push at next week's watershed five-day meeting of the IWC in Morocco.
But Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett, who will lead the Australian delegation, warns it might not be enough.
He says there is a real risk that the current moratorium on commercial whaling - which hampers Japan's whaling program - will be lifted.
"We will do whatever we can to make sure that there isn't a majority for a proposal to leave the moratorium on commercial whaling in tatters on the floor," Mr Garrett said from his office in Parliament House.
"That would be a terrible, terrible result."
While anti-whaling sentiment in Australia appears to have been gathering strength, the IWC is moving further away from whaling bans. The best result for conservationists out of the summit could be the status quo.
The 88-member IWC has long been paralysed by a rift between pro- and anti-whaling countries. Neither side can muster the 75 per cent of votes needed to have its way; the result is a stalemate.
The status quo is that commercial whaling is banned but countries can get around the ban. Japan says it hunts whales for scientific research, which is technically allowed.
Things are different at the IWC this time around. Key countries are tiring of the impasse.
IWC chairman Cristian Maquieira - who will not attend the meeting - is pushing a compromise proposal that would overturn the 24-year-old ban on commercial whaling while reducing the number of whales killed each year.
It is this proposal that Australia wants to scotch.
Mr Garrett's plan is to rally the support of anti-whaling allies - including South American countries, New Zealand, Britain, Germany and possibly the US - which have expressed some support for the compromise. Australia's special envoy on whaling Sandy Hollway will be in Morocco, too.
The minister will be pushing Australia's alternative proposal of a phase-down and cessation of Antarctic whaling, which is not expected to get up.
"The prospects are stretched," Mr Garrett said of his proposal.
"Given that there's some really difficult and quite challenging issues that have come on to the table ... I think it's time for us to just get in there, stand up and argue as strongly as we need to that we don't take steps backwards."
Australia will also push for specific restrictions on whaling in the Southern Ocean, and try to make it harder to hunt whales in the name of science.
At the moment a country decides for itself if the science justifies the hunting of whales. Mr Garrett wants an IWC scientific committee to take on that role.
The IWC meeting is pivotal to the chances of Australia's legal action against Japan, lodged recently in the International Court of Justice. The case rests on IWC rules, but will be judged from outside the IWC so is not expected to dominate next week's summit.
Australia is arguing that Japanese "scientific" whaling is commercial whaling in disguise, so is against the law.
But if the IWC overturns the ban on commercial whaling, Japan will not need to use the "scientific" justification, so the point becomes moot.
Mr Garrett, a former high-profile conservationist and activist-musician, appears to hold little hope the IWC summit will be a win for the whales.
But he is optimistic the battle will be won eventually.
"In the long term I think ... that we will get there."http://www.smh.com.au/environment/whale-watch/terrible-risk-for-whales-garrett-20100618-yldo.html