Sunday 03 May 2009

Will the IWC's future repeat the mistakes of the past?

As reported previously, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has convened a series of meetings to discuss the Commission's future. The future of the IWC is of course inextricably linked to the futures of many thousands of whales.

Two years ago, at the 2007 Annual Meeting, IWC members agreed that an intercessional meeting should be held in the leadup to the 2008 Annual Meeting in an effort to move beyond the stalemate between pro-whaling and pro-conservation nations. During March 2008 representatives from a majority of IWC member nations met, primarily to discuss procedural matters and to recommend further action.

At the 2008 Annual Meeting, held in Chile, it was agreed that some progress had been made and that a Small Working Group (SWG) should be formed before the 2009 Annual Meeting, to build on the work already done.

The SWG met first in September 2008 (Florida, USA) then in December 2008 (Cambridge, UK) and again in March 2009 (Rome, Italy). More than half the IWC's 84 member nations are represented on the SWG, including Australia. The first two meetings were closed-door sessions from which the press and NGOs were excluded. NGOs were allowed restricted access to and participation in the third meeting.

At the Florida meeting a list of 33 issues for consideration was drawn up which included: the moratorium on commercial whaling; scientific whaling; whale sanctuaries; the Revised Management Scheme (RMS); the Revised Management Procedure (RMP); Japanese "Small-Type Whaling", animal welfare; bycatch and infractions; ethics; small cetaceans and trade restrictions.

The latest SWG meeting

Chaired by Ambassador Alvaro de Soto (Peru), the third SWG meeting took place over three days from 9 to 11 March 2009.

The Australian representatives at the meeting maintained a position of strong opposition to scientific whaling, particularly its commercial aspects and the resulting impact on the effectiveness of the commercial whaling moratorium. They highlighted the importance of the IWC Conservation Committee and the need to consider an ecosystem-based approach to management and to factor in environmental threats to cetaceans.

Australia also raised particular concerns about the issue of Japanese small-type whaling.

Mexico, New Zealand and the UK had similar views. New Zealand added that scientific whaling needs to be eliminated and not merely limited, and the UK went so far as to state that the cessation of scientific whaling is "vital in guaranteeing the future of the IWC". Monaco, too, stated that scientific whaling should end, and the USA advised that the Obama Administration considers scientific whaling unnecessary.

Brazil also expressed concern about scientific whaling. From a positive perspective, the Brazilian representatives saw options for negotiating the establishment of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary and a greater focus in the Commission on the non-consumptive use of whales, such as whale watching.

The concept of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary was also endorsed by New Zealand, Mexico, Costa Rica and others.

Japan restated its position on the necessity of scientific whaling "at a level required for meaningful scientific research". This view was shared by the Republic of Korea and Argentina.The Japanese delegates highlighted the need for small-type whaling in the interests of its coastal communities 'suffering' as a consequence of the moratorium, and this was again supported by the Republic of Korea saying it is confronted with a similar problem.

Argentina and Iceland representatives spoke in favour of scientific whaling and the rights of nations to continue commercial whaling provided they submitted formal 'objections' to the moratorium.

In a minor break from the pro-whaling alliance, the Republic of Korea stated that it might compromise on the issue of establishing a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary if it could be proven to have "a sound scientific basis".

At the request of Japan, the SWG agenda was extended to include discussion of "the harassment of its research vessels by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society during its research activities".
At the conclusion of the meeting, IWC Chair Dr William Hogarth (USA) said that he was cautiously optimistic that the SWG would yield the desired results, but admitted that 'a great deal of work remains to be done'.

The SWG report will be a major agenda item at this year's Annual Meeting, to be held in Madeira, Spain in June. It is understood that the report will recommend a package of short-term interim solutions, with other longer-term solutions to be developed within five years. Many participants at the March 2009 meeting, however, have expressed concern about whether a comprehensive plan can be ready by June.

Need to be wary of trade-off

The AWCS will be paying close attention to the recommendations put forward by the SWG at this year's IWC Annual Meeting. Whatever compromises and concessions might be proposed, any increase in whales taken, or the transfer of whales to be killed from one area to another, are not acceptable options.

Japan is finding that its scientific whaling in the Antarctic is coming under increasing international scrutiny. If it wishes to address the criticism by reducing or even abandoning its Antarctic whaling activities, well and good. But Japan cannot be allowed to counterbalance such actions by increasing its whaling effort elsewhere e.g. decreasing the numbers killed in the Antarctic while increasing the hunt in the North Pacific.

For Japan to attempt to do so would be to confirm the argument of the AWCS and other whale conservation organisations that scientific whaling is, and has always been, about the number of whales reaching commercial markets, not about scientifically determined numbers that are "essential for good science".

And for the IWC and its member nations to agree to support, or be seen to support, any deal that includes increasing the number of whales taken anywhere would be nothing short of complicity in commercial whaling.

The 2009 Annual Commission Meeting commences on 22 June.


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