There was a time when the fight to save the whales was at the forefront of environmental concerns. Sadly, this is no longer true and, as we approach the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission a little later this month, it is worth reflecting on the dilemmas now facing those who continue to oppose whaling for profit.
The 1982 global moratorium on commercial whaling was a significant victory for anti-whaling campaigners. But the moratorium and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary (agreed by the IWC in 1994) have been tattered by years of refusal from pro-whaling nations to comply with them. The pro-whalers, working within a strong alliance of mainly developing world nations, are successfully confusing established categories of whaling, and convincing some at least that the whales threaten fishing and food security.
The IWC only recognises three categories of whaling - commercial (banned by the moratorium), aboriginal subsistence whaling and 'scientific' (authorised under Article VIII of the whaling convention). However, for many years, Japan has conducted large-scale whaling that it has claimed is covered by the 'scientific' clause.
For many years, Japan has conducted large-scale whaling that it has claimed is covered by the 'scientific' clause.
Last year, Australia (a country whose people care deeply about whales and whaling), went head to head with Japan in the highest court in the world, the International Court of Justice. The focus of the court case was Japan's annual, open-ended and large-scale take of whales in Antarctica. Australia argued that this was essentially commercial not scientific, and did not fit the requirements of the Article VIII.
In March this year, the ICJ panel of judges returned its verdict agreeing that Article VIII did not apply. At first Japanese officials agreed to abide by the court's ruling. However, just a few weeks later, Japan announced it was only pausing for one season to modify its 'research' programme to meet the ICJ stipulations. No robust response from anti-whaling nations followed. Japan can read the politics of silence as well as anyone else and if no international effort to follow up strongly on the ICJ decision exists, why not just carry on whaling? Who will come forward to challenge Japan's new 'scientific' programme?
The 65th meeting of the IWC will open in Slovenia shortly; the first meeting since the ICJ verdict. The meeting will have to deal with the aftermath of this, and sensitive discussions around the issue of 'aboriginal subsistence whaling'. Vagueness about the definition of this category of whaling is an ongoing problem. For example, for some time, requests for 'aboriginal' whaling quotas from Greenland have been controversial, coming to a head at the last IWC meeting in 2012 , when Greenland's quota was voted down. A variety of concerns led to this, including revelations about the increasingly commercialised nature of the hunts, with whale meat passing into supermarkets and being sold to tourists. Greenland's requested quota was also based on an amount of whale meat assigned to every person living in Greenland, not just particular aboriginal whaling communities. A new quota request has been submitted and will be discussed at IWC 65. It is little different from its predecessor but remarkably this time appears to be robustly supported by European IWC member nations.
Also on the agenda for IWC 65 is a new proposal from Japan for what it calls 'Small Type Coastal Whaling'. Japan has regularly made requests at IWC meetings based on what it claims is the hardship endured by some coastal communities since the moratorium was agreed. This is despite the fact that Japanese whaling has continued in the North Pacific anyway. It may come as no surprise that Japan's request has remarkable similarities to that from Greenland. It is almost as if Greenland and Japan have been working together to create a new way to pursue commercial whaling!
Alongside these requests for quotas from Greenland and Japan, is a draft resolution from some African member nations that seems to seek to justify whaling due to the need for 'food security'. Food security has of course been widely supported in appropriate international fora. At the IWC this can only be about whale meat. Does whaling really have anything to do with food security? Whales are wide-ranging, long-lived, slow breeding and difficult and expensive to monitor - inherently unsuitable for commercial harvest. Indeed, far from being threats to food security, the latest scientific literature shows that they help to fertilise the surface waters of the oceans and lock away carbon. A healthy ecosystem is one with abundant whales, and their role--like that of the tropical rain forests--is one that needs to be preserved and protected for our own good.
A healthy ecosystem is one with abundant whales
In Slovenia we can expect that the whale-friendly and conservation-minded nations will find themselves in the cross-fire of several difficult issues, including the rights of indigenous peoples, food security and awkward European Union politics (Greenland is represented by Denmark at the IWC and also within the EU caucus). It is easy to see how such a hot-bed of uncertainty and vagueness is ripe for exploitation by pro-whaling nations.
What is the greatest pity in all of this is that the verdict from the ICJ case gave everyone a legitimate route to back away from the sham that was Japan's 'scientific' whaling in the Southern Ocean. The ICJ is also a vitally important arbitrator of disputes between nations, so for the good of international rule it needs to be respected. For commercial whaling to be finally moved to where it belongs, in the annals of history, and to stop it emerging in a new guise, politicians across the world need to be swiftly woken from their slumbers and again they need to pay attention to this issue.
Let them know you care - write to your elected representatives letting them know you believe that whales still need to be fully protected and commercial whaling, in whatever guise, should be stopped!