Much reporting from the recent 66th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC66), where representatives from nations around the world gather biannually to make momentous decisions impacting the world's whales, focused on the 'big shows'. These were mainly the debates around special permit whaling, or, as it is better known, scientific whaling, and the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary proposal, which again failed to gain the necessary margin needed to pass. Yet, in a less widely appreciated move, the now 70-year-old Whaling Commission quietly took two big strides. Firstly, it established new work streams on bycatch, which is the incidental capture of animals in fishing gear, and stranding. Secondly, it acknowledged, for the first time, that whales could have a positive impact on marine ecosystems.
Looking at each of these matters in turn, it is perhaps remarkable that there is no existing coordinated international effort on the bycatch of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). The numbers of animals affected are huge, staggering even, with an estimated 308,000 cetaceans perishing in fishing nets and gear worldwide every year. For the great majority this will be an unkind death. For those held fast underwater by the gear, death will take minutes, maybe tens of minutes whilst they deplete their oxygen reserves and struggle violently to break free. Bigger whales and others less fortunate can sometimes swim away carrying ropes and other gear wrapped around their flippers, their mouths or around their tails, so the relief of death can be very far away. As the whales struggle to survive, loops of fishing gear can slowly saw into tissues, causing terrible wounds and adversely affecting their movement, feeding and other normal behaviour. The average time until death for a North Atlantic right whale carrying fishing gear is estimated at a shocking six months; months of struggle and often agony. This is a serious animal welfare issue and is one that we have the power to stop.
Bycatch is widely regarded as the number-one conservation problem for cetaceans. With several populations poised on the edge of extinction, bycatch threatens their very survival. For example in the case of the vaquita, a species of porpoise indigenous to the Gulf of California, bycatch means being captured in gill nets set for the totoaba fish (itself an endangered species), which has a swim bladder worth a fortune in Asian traditional medicine markets. The vaquita is the most endangered cetacean on Earth, with less than 60 individuals now thought to be surviving. To its credit, IWC 66 passed Resolution IWC/66/20REV expressing 'deep concern' about the vaquita's plight and has called for urgent action from the relevant authorities, adding its voice to that of other international bodies which have recently spoken out similarly.
Trying to find ways to address bycatch is a worthy role for the forward-looking IWC and, as an international organisation with a longstanding interest in cetacean conservation which has connections to other relevant international bodies, it is well placed to now take a lead in this issue.
However, the quiet revolution at IWC 66 did not end there. For many years, IWC meetings have included low level grumbling from some quarters about the perceived threat posed by whales to human food security. This is sometimes known as 'the whales are eating all of our fish' issue. No solid science supports this argument as a generic threat but this year's meeting witnessed a genuine paradigm shift when delegates passed Resolution IWC/66/15 REV3 on 'Cetaceans and Their Contributions to Ecosystem Functioning'. Chile led this resolution, which was submitted by a number of other Latin American nations. It acknowledges the increasing scientific data suggesting that whales enhance nutrient availability for primary production and encourages IWC Contracting Governments to work constructively towards integrating such considerations into conservation efforts. This resolution also puts the IWC's key committees, the Scientific and Conservation Committees, to focus the IWC's work on both better understanding and integrating the contributions cetaceans make to their ecosystems.
Other positive outcomes included the reinforcement of an ongoing commitment by the Commission to an innovative work stream on welfare issues, as championed by the UK. The IWC would appear to be the first intergovernmental body that has committed to systematically assess, articulate and mitigate welfare problems caused incidentally by human activities in wild animals' habitats, and this speaks volumes for its forward-looking evolution. While whaling clearly causes immense suffering to many animals, the Commission now also concerns itself with the animal-welfare impacts of issues including boat strikes, pollution, poorly-managed whale watching and strandings. The vision for the IWC's new strandings work is similar to that of its widely feted whale disentanglement work. This started in 2011 and since then the IWC has run workshops and training events on how to respond to whales entangled in fishing gear for some 900 people in over 30 countries. The sight of whales and dolphins slowly dying on the shore is distressing for all who witness the suffering of these magnificent creatures, and I fully expect that the new IWC strandings initiative can help people respond appropriately.
The IWC now has a number of initiatives running that concern threats and issues which in 1949, when it was established, were unknown or little-considered. These issues include those concerning noise and chemical pollution, ship-strikes, climate-change, whale-disentanglement. Because of the hard work concluded at IWC66, we can add the contributions made by whales to ocean productivity, new work on welfare issues, including strandings, and the issue of bycatch, all resulting in cause for celebration!