Next! Here Comes the International Whaling Commission.

18/10/2016 12:24


Photo-credit: (c) Fabian Ritter: The mighty blow of a blue whale in the Sea of Cortez

Recently, a veritable parade of major global decision-making meetings addressing wild animal issues have been passing by in quick succession: firstly the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s World Conservation Congress met in Hawaii in early September; then the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) convened in Johannesburg, South Africa, in late September; and finally along comes perhaps the most contentious of them all, the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Its biennial meeting of its member nations - The Commission Meeting - starts in a week's time in Portoroz, Slovenia.

These three bodies are independent of each other but some common themes link them - commercial whaling is one of them - and key messages and concerns are communicated from one to another. For example, the IUCN - which had more than 10,000 registered participants from all around the world and more than 100 'policy motions' to consider at its meeting - passed two aimed fairly and squarely at the IWC. One of these (Motion 058) addressed so called scientific or special permit whaling and more than 90 per cent of those voting for it called upon -

"Japan to revoke any existing special permit under Article VIII of the ICRW [the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which established the IWC] for whale research in the Southern Ocean and in the western North Pacific and to remove lethal sampling components from its whale research programmes; [and] ...all States to refrain from issuing any further special permits under Article VIII of the ICRW."

The IUCN motion also emphasised the need for the continuation and expansion of non-lethal research on whales and for international collaboration.

The other IUCN resolution (Motion 101) addressed the long-disputed South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary. At the IWC, sanctuary proposals (like whaling quotas) need three quarters of those nations voting for or against to be in favour of them and this proposal has been blocked by a minority of pro-whaling countries at IWC meetings for many years. The IUCN stated that it -

"SUPPORTS the establishment of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary under the auspices of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) as proposed by Argentina, Brazil, Gabon, South Africa and Uruguay [and that it] CALLS UPON all members of the IWC to support the proposal to establish a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary at the 66th meeting of the IWC in Slovenia in October 2016."

This very clear message was again supported by a huge majority.

The IUCN is an influential forum whose members include states as well as agencies and non-governmental organisations. CITES is a very different beast! A full-blown international agreement between nations, it makes binding decisions and possesses even the power to punish member nations for non-compliance. The primary whaling-related matter considered in Johannesburg was a subtle attempt to move towards the reopening of legal international trade in whale products. All the great whales are currently protected by being listed on CITES Appendix 1, which bans international trade for primarily commercial purposes. This is something that CITES did to support the IWC's moratorium on commercial whaling agreed in 1982. This year, the CITES Secretariat proposed opening up the possibility for the re-entry of whales into what is known as the 'periodic review process'. Once in this review process, species or populations can be proposed for downgrading their protected status. The proposal failed.

How will the messages from the IUCN and the reconfirmation of the protected status of whales at CITES play into the forthcoming IWC meeting? Certainly, we can expect some fierce debate at the IWC and some parties there will advance the views of the IUCN. Does the fact that CITES did not change its position on the great whales also matter at the IWC? Yes, it does, because, whilst CITES and the IWC have had a very different evolution, they are clearly more effective if they are in lockstep.

This year's IWC meeting (IWC 66) will mark the 70th anniversary of that body - itself another full-blown international agreement - and, perhaps even more significantly the 30th anniversary of the moratorium on commercial whaling. Following the wanton destruction of one whale population after another in the 19th and 20th centuries, the moratorium has brought more than a respite for the whales; it has also brought a change of heart on our part. We have had time to understand the animals concerned far better. Issues such as the need to identify and conserve their cultural units and better appreciation of their suffering when being hunted have come to light. The IWC itself has undergone an evolution - if not a revolution - at the same time. These days, it has turned increasingly to try to address the full range of modern threats affecting whales, issues such as the rekindled threat of chemical pollution (as described in my previous blog), marine noise, ship-strikes and climate change. (Some of this progress is reviewed in a recent paper published in the Frontiers in Marine Science.)

One of the IWC's ongoing projects addresses the entanglement of whales in fishing gear, a growing problem and a severe welfare issue. The IWC project helps to train rescuers around the world and to develop improved rescue techniques for what are typically brave and demanding rescue attempts. How wonderful that the body set up to manage the killing of whales now addresses their rescue!

Of course the debates about whaling will continue. The three recalcitrant commercial whaling nations (Japan, Norway and Iceland) will continue to attack the moratorium - perhaps seeking to overwhelm it by stealth (for example by seeking to develop new forms of commercialized whaling) or head-on by recruiting more countries to their side. But it is difficult for them to oppose efforts on conservation or welfare because these are inherently shared values across all nations.

At IWC 66, we should celebrate the 30th anniversary of the moratorium. The IWC and its members should be proud of its growing engagement with modern issues and we should all look to see where else it might be able to lend assistance!