Tom Mexsis Happynook picks a chunk of lamb out of his buffet lunch and puts it aside. "I just don't have a palate for this," he says. The head of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribal group, in Canada's British Columbia, prefers whale meat. "People say to me that I'm a murderer, a barbarian. They ask how I could do this," says Happynook, a hereditary whaling chief. But "my grandfather taught me from birth about being an environmentalist and a conservationist." He also taught young Tom "about my connection to whales," Happynook says. "I would never support unsustainable whaling."
Happynook is chairman of the World Council of Whalers, which wants traditional whale-hunting peoples exempted from international covenants that ban commercial whaling. Last week, he and 100 delegates from a dozen countries gathered beneath a whale-jaw archway in the port of Nelson, New Zealand, for the WCW's third general assembly. The meeting, sponsored by the Maori-run Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission, has stirred passions in a nation that fiercely opposes commercial whaling. Local National Party M.P. Nick Smith said the conference was "as unwelcome in New Zealand as would be the Ku Klux Klan."
The WCW's appeals to indigenous rights have largely shielded it from public criticism. But many conservationists say the body is little more than a front for Japan and Norway, which chafe at the restrictions imposed by the International Whaling Commission. The IWC permits whale hunting for "aboriginal subsistence," so long as the products are not exchanged for cash. Critics say letting tribal groups sell whale meat for "cultural reasons" would give pro-whaling nations a way around the ban. According to ocean conservationist group Sea Shepherd, the WCW was set up with $20,000 from "Norwegian and Japanese whaling interests." Conference convenor Milton Freeman, of the Canadian Circumpolar Institute, says all IWC members were approached for help in funding the conference, but only pro-whaling nations contributed: "The others just laughed at us."
Japan is regularly accused of buying IWC votes with development aid. At a commission meeting in Adelaide, Australia, last July, Caribbean delegates helped Japan defeat a proposal to set up a whale sanctuary in the South Pacific. Dominican Agriculture Minister Atherton Martin, a prominent environmental campaigner, resigned his post in protest. He accuses Japan of manipulating the WCW with the same "disingenuous strategy" it has adopted with Caribbean nations. "Some of the leaders of these [indigenous pro-whaling] movements see an opportunity to make money for themselves and to exercise power," he says. New Zealand Conservation Minister Sandra Lee urged her fellow Maori to think hard before embracing the WCW's goals. "Maori and other indigenous people need to be vigilant," she said, "to ensure that we are never used as stalking horses by those seeking a resumption of commercial whaling interests."
That warning was spurned by Sir Tipene O'Regan, a former chairman of the Fisheries Commission. "There is no more insulting or patronizing position than that which depicts this gathering as a naïve bunch of natives being led around by the nose by scheming industrialist, capitalist, destructive forces," O'Regan said. His Ngai Tahu tribe (to which Lee also belongs) was a pioneer in whale-watching cruises-the ecotourism opportunity that conservationists believe should replace whale hunting. Maori did not traditionally hunt whales, obtaining prized whale bones and teeth from beached whales. But O'Regan's battles with the Conservation Department over Maori access to such material appear to have made him sympathetic to the WCW's position.
According to Lee, however, "Maori with an interest in retrieving bone from stranded whales have been doing so for many years, with the active support of DoC." Any gripes Maori may have, she said, lie not with New Zealand laws but with the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (cites), which prohibits trading in all species of great whales.
"There is a tendency to say that commerce is bad, the enemy of conservation," says Eugene La Pointe, who addressed an audience that included Inuit from Greenland, Ainu from Japan, and dugong hunters from northern Australia. La Pointe, a former secretary-general of cites, now heads the International Wildlife Management Consortium-World Conservation Trust. Deriding organizations like Greenpeace for using "charismatic megafauna" as fund-raising tools, he said: "As far as wildlife is concerned, the best way to preserve them is to find economic incentives for that to happen."
Many speakers at the conference expressed resentment that nations that once hunted whales on an industrial scale should now control indigenous people's access to a food source they traditionally cared for. There was a sense of solidarity in the discussions of humane killing methods and the importance of traditional diets. Confronting a tiny protest outside the conference venue, Olavur Sjúdaberg, of the Faroe Islands Pilot Whalers Association, said: "I love the whales, but I also eat them." For many New Zealanders-and conservationist members of the IWC-that seems a strange way of showing affection.