Having just finished my masters in Marine Mammal Science, I got the opportunity to attend the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Slovenia. So far all my knowledge about the IWC was based on reading and discussions held in the classroom and I was excited to see what happens when pro-whaling and anti-whaling countries meet.
But first a little bit of history to put the IWC into context…
The IWC was established under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1946 with the aim to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”. In only a few decades commercial whaling had depleted stocks of many large whales, proving that the oceans are not inexhaustible after all and that management plans were required if whaling was to be continued. However, initial management attempts were generally unsuccessful because available methods did not allow to set sustainable catch limits. It was in 1982 when a pause in commercial whaling was adopted by the IWC (and effective from 1986). The zero catch limit of the so-called moratorium on commercial whaling was not intended to prohibit commercial whaling permanently, but to allow scientists to perform a “comprehensive assessment” of whale stocks and by 1990 at the latest the IWC should consider the establishment of other catch limits again. However, since 1982 the number of IWC members increased from 39 to 89 in 2014 with nearly equal proportions of countries in favour of and in opposition to whaling depending on the attendance to the IWC meeting. As a consequence, the required ¾ majority to change the text of the moratorium has not been achieved yet.
At the 65th meeting of the IWC in Portoroz (Slovenia) this year, 61 governments attended this spectacle which could have been summarised by “To whale or not to whale? That is the question.” Most delegations have clear instructions from their governments about what they should say and how they should vote and, broadly speaking, the members can be divided in two groups: the pro-whaling countries (Japan, Iceland, Norway, some Caribbean countries and coastal African countries) and the opponents to whaling (European Union countries, United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Latin American countries). With such strong preset opinion, it is needless to say that most countries will not accept any major compromises and it baffles me how any resolutions are agreed on by consensus.
The Japanese Commissioner is being interviewed about the new resolution on special permits.
On the agenda this year were recurrent subjects, such as aboriginal subsistence whaling, Japan’s small-type coastal whaling and the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, but particularly discussions on New Zealand’s resolution on special permits was awaited with great anticipation by delegations and the press. This proposal was a direct response to the judgment of the International Court of Justice in the case concerning scientific whaling by Japan in Antarctic waters earlier this year because the judgment confirmed that the past 8 years of “scientific whaling” in the Southern Ocean by Japan was illegal (the full judgement can be read here; according to Australia it’s an easy 46 pages read…). Indeed, the take of whales for the purposes of scientific research is allowed under the convention, which Japan has been using as loophole to continue whaling. New Zealand’s resolution was put to vote and with 35 ‘yes’ votes versus 20 ‘no’ votes the notion was passed, which means that in future justifiable sample sizes and consideration of non-lethal alternative research methods should be taken into consideration before the issuing of special permits for research programs involving the take of whales. Japan responded to this decision by indicating its intention to propose a new research plan for Antarctic waters.
While the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (SAWS) had many supporters, who were in favour of research and conservation and reminded the IWC that effort should be made to promote the health of whale populations, the proposal did not reach the required ¾ majority. The opponents explained that sanctuaries would not make sense at a time of the moratorium. The SAWS was first proposed in 2001, so really, a young project as noted by the IWC chair Jeannine Compton-Antoine from St Lucia, reminding that Japan has been trying to get approval for its small-type coastal whaling for 20 years now. Also this year, the majority of countries voted ‘no’ on Japan’s proposal to take 17 minke whales per year. In contrast, with the somewhat involuntary support of the EU countries, Greenland succeeded to get their quotas for aboriginal whaling approved and can now take over 200 large whales annually until 2018 for local consumption.
Despite being a landlocked country, Luxembourg has its say at the IWC since 2005 (read a Luxembourgish interview with Pierre Gallego on RTL.lu). Luxembourg supports conservation of marine resources and urges the IWC to anything possible to prevent the extinction of cetaceans such as the vaquita in Mexico or the Maui’s dolphin in New Zealand. We consider research the basis of conservation and management of marine ecosystems and also actively participate at meetings of the Scientific Committee of the IWC.