The reaction to Japan leaving the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has been predictable, offering nothing new.
The Australian Government has said it's "extremely disappointed", while UK Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove tweeted that Britain would "continue to fight for the welfare of these majestic mammals".
So far, so normal, with all and sundry wanting to show how concerned they are, armed with the froth of publicity and minimal dose of fact. But the annoyance at Japan leaving is partly, one suspects, that outside of IWC there are few ways to frustrate the ambitions of Japan.
As chair of the IWC in the 1990s, I witnessed the futility of the international community's approach to the whaling issue. As I noted in 2012: "We need a much saner dialogue, in which Australia puts away its placards and Japan puts away its chopsticks, and we start to discuss the real issues."
But this decision is a very serious, if not dangerous, one, on several fronts.
As it's no longer part of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), Japan cannot pursue scientific whaling. So, as the Australian ministers note, there will be no more whales killed in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary (by Japan).
At present, all populations of whales are recovering, albeit at different rates. Minke whales in the Southern Ocean have never been in danger and were always capable of far greater sustainable take, if that was what the global community wanted. (They didn't, of course.)
But the world of whales is dived into different "stocks" or populations. And while most whale species are highly migratory, there are none-the-less genetically distinct stocks around the world.
The problem is that for whaling in the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the scientific evidence suggests that stock levels are low, and do not show the levels of robust recovery seen elsewhere. So, while there is a gain for whales in the Southern Ocean (where it's least needed), the threat to northern Pacific populations increases.
And the one thing that will decrease (despite the usual bluster) is the amount of research done on whales globally.
The ICRW was drawn up in the late 1940s as a convention for whalers, with Australia being in at the foundation in 1948. Japan joined in 1951. By remaining in the ICW until now, Japan has faithfully followed international protocol, including the decision by the International Court of Justice in 2014 following the challenge by Australia to Japan's "scientific whaling".
The nub of the governance problem is that the ICRW has two main aims:
"[To pursue] the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry."
The term "conservation" here simply means ensuring there are enough whales to maintain an industry, but that is not how it is interpreted by Australia and other like-minded countries. And "make possible" are the two key words in that statement of aims.
To whale anywhere outside of the Japanese EEZ, Japan would need to cooperate with an "appropriate international organisation for [the whales'] conservation, management and study" (UNCLOS Art.65).
While regional organisations such as NAMMCO do exist, the north Atlantic is hardly close to the north Pacific.
Internally in Japan, the pressure to leave IWC seems to have come from the Fisheries Agency (although with angst from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and with a final political decision pushed by a few pro-whaling politicians. The likely result will be a frustrated Japan, fishing an unsustainable resource, in an increasingly smaller pond. And no-one will be winning.
As in all human relationships, it is about talking with, not talking to, and, importantly, listening.
In my six years as Australian commissioner and three as chair it was alternately exhilarating and depressing to feel we were "winning" on whaling and then to realise that everyone was losing.
For example, I witnessed Japan produce volumes of detailed studies on the cultural significance of whales and whaling to key settlements mainly in the north of Honshu — all contemptuously dismissed by "like-minded" countries, to the palpable disappointment of the Japanese delegation. It was simple hubris.
Where engagement was possible the results were great for whales and people. But if nations are parties to conventions whose texts they embrace when useful and discard when not, then the system is simply broken.
What Australia can do, if it really wants to help whales and be globally responsible, is lead a charge to reform the text of the ICRW with Japan. For example, taking parts of ICRW, especially the scientific committee, into the Convention on Migratory Species and using that convention to deal with these global issues.
Another positive development would be a greatly enhanced whale research program from Australia, NZ, South Africa, Argentina and the UK, to which Japan could be invited to contribute.
This is a moment of breakage and pain for the international system, driven partly by political manoeuvring in Japan, but enabled by rote chanting in the West of "we don't like killing whales" and peddling of the usual emotive nonsense from NGOs.
Yet it could have positive results. But, guys, please talk with each other and stop shouting.
Peter Bridgewater was Chair of the IWC from 1995-1998 and is now adjunct professor at the University of Canberra.