ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) – 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.

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.”

Conservationist at heart

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.

Limiting fishing

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.

Diplomatic tensions

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.

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.”

Thawing relations

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.

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.

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.

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