To whale or not to whale

To whale or not to whale  the 52nd annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission ( iwc ) was 'business as usual', riddled with controversy over resumption of whaling. At this year's convention, held from July 3-6 in Adelaide, Australia, the establishment of a South Pacific whale sanctuary became the bone of contention between pro and anti-whaling nations. The proposed sanctuary, which would span some 12 million square kilometers, would have placed half the world's oceans off limits to whaling. Australia, New Zealand and the us were among 18 countries in favour of the sanctuary. But Japan, Norway, and the Caribbean countries, who have been opposed to a moratorium on whaling for several years now, were able to obtain enough support to stop the proposal.

"Valuable time and emotion has been wasted in Adelaide debating the failed proposal for sanctuary, which ultimately would have delivered no real gains for effective conservation and management of whales," said Eugene Lapointe of the International Wildlife Management ConsortiumWorld Conservation Trust ( iwmc-wct ). For Rune Frovik of the High North Alliance, a Norway-based non-governmental organisation in support of sustainable whaling, the meeting was typical of iwc meetings over the decade. There is a constant tug of war between whaling nations, who want iwc to be a regulator and manager of whaling; and anti-whaling nations, who prefer iwc to serve more as a conservation organisation.

Diplomatic ethics were called into question at the meeting. Dominican Republican environment minister Atherton Martin resigned to protest his country's vote opposing the sanctuary. In a written public statement, Martin said Japan had influenced his country's vote with development assistance. Apparently other small nations faced similar pressures from Japan. "There is absolutely no reason for us to be held to ransom by Japan in return for promises of aid," said Martin.

But whaling nations are not alone in using their political and economic influence to push forth their agenda. According to Lapointe, the us pressurised Switzerland in 1994, before the vote for the Southern Hemisphere Sanctuary, by threatening to withdraw support for the proposed World Trade Organisation headquarters in Switzerland. Switzerland was originally opposed to the sanctuary. Barbados faced pressure from Commonwealth nations through the Organisation of European Cooperation and Development on other issues in 1999.

iwc was established in 1946 to manage whale stocks by regulating commercial whaling. Whales migrate globally between coastal and deep-sea waters. Thus, the call for international cooperation and understanding among nations was vital for the effective management of whale species. It was also becoming apparent that whale populations had been declining to near extinction levels. In response, whaling nations and those concerned established the International Convention on Whaling that led to the establishment of the iwc. The guidelines of the convention apply to only its 41 member nations. Resolutions passed by a majority vote are implemented through domestic legislation.

In 1986, due to indications of declining whale stocks, the commission instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling that is still in effect. But since then, the iwc has been locked in a war of words between countries for or against the ban. "Anti-whalers control the majority in the iwc , so nothing will happen unless they so wish," says Frovik. Though the moratorium does allow aboriginal subsistence whaling, it does not spell out any mechanism to ensure compliance. According to Frovik, compliance mechanisms work mainly on a bilateral basis. The us , for instance, has many times over the years threatened whaling nations such as Canada, Japan, Iceland, Norway and Russia with trade sanctions.

According to a World Wide Fund for Nature ( wwf ) publication, Japan and Norway have continued whaling despite the moratorium, hunting over 1,000 whales annually. Taking advantage of the weak stance spelled out by iwc , which does not define catch limits for whaling for scientific research purposes, Japan continues to angle minke whales within the Southern Ocean Sanctuary and Western North Pacific. Meat from whales caught for 'scientific' purposes is sold commercially in Japan.The country argues that "it needs to kill whales in order to discover their prey in research on competition between man and whale for fisheries in the region."

Despite hectic lobbying year after year, Japan has failed to receive approval from the iwc . This year, it announced its intention to add two more species, the bryde and sperm whale, to its scientific whaling project. uk fisheries minister Elliot Morley led the commission members to formally "condemn" Japan's announcement to upscale its whaling. Says Vassili Papastavrou, whale biologist at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, scientific whaling is commercial whaling in disguise.

Norway, meanwhile, continues commercial whaling in the Northeast Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Barents Sea through formal objection to the moratorium. According to Norwegian whaler Bjorn Hugo, "There is a stock of 180,000 whales and we shoot some 500-600. The regulations for whaling are so conservative that if you regulated fishing in the same way you'd have to shut down every fishery in Norway and in the whole world." Whaling generates one-third of the income in coastal regions in Norway, and is a substantial portion of the economy. Conser-vationists, who see the whale as an icon of conservation efforts, often target their wrath at community members in these regions.

Beyond whaling
Besides the anti-whaling and whaling quagmire, the commission did make some progress. Led by a block of 10 "moderate nations", including Sweden, Switzerland and Ireland, iwc passed a resolution to convene a working group in February 2001 to finalise a revised management scheme ( rms ) proposed by Irish iwc commissioner Michael Canny in 1997. The proposal phases out lethal scientific whaling, permits catches solely for local consumption, bans high-seas whaling, and limits commercial whaling to coastal areas of whaling nations. "The proposal is a highly conservative management regime, which even the most conservative members of the iwc 's scientific committee can embrace. The rms is "... the only logical way forward to controlled conservation of whales and the orderly development of the whaling industry," observes Lapointe.

The guidelines for rms would outline mechanisms for monitoring and inspection of commercial whaling. The revised management procedure ( rmp ) under rms defines catch limits and was agreed upon by the members in 1994. rmp has been tested with computer trials that includes environmental effects. The comprehensive rms is expected to prevent depletion of future whale stocks through commercial whaling. Anti-whaling nations and groups are asking that the guidelines include "killing methods, domestic market inspections, and wider environmental issues".

Japanese iwc commissioner Minoru Morimoto is optimistic that rms could actually be implemented at the next annual meeting. But Frovik does not think so. "The anti-whaling nations are dragging their feet to ensure that the iwc will not adopt the rms . Giving the green light to the adoption of the rms would mean giving the green light to whaling," he says. The iwc is hoping that members will be "pre-pared to trade-off tightly regulated, small-scale whaling in coastal regions for a permanent global ban on high-seas whaling."

Are the numbers of whales truly increasing? The iwc scientific commit-tee stated this year that minke whale populations may be declining and are likely to be lower than the previously estimated 760,000. Past whaling by the Soviets in the South Pacific may have been more damaging than prior indications, according to the committee. "We think this is very significant," says Cassandra Phillips of wwf, who attended the meeting in Adelaide. "The Japanese have been bandying around this figure of three-quarters of a million minkes, but now there's really authoritative evidence that it's totally unreliable."

The effectiveness of the commission has been recently called into question. According to wwf, iwc needs to take urgent action to address this unstable situation and regain control over the management of whaling. But pro-whaling organisations see little future for the iwc . "As long as the iwc does not stick to its objective, as laid down in the charter, which is to regulate whaling rather than ban it, it becomes more and more irrelevant," says Frovik.

So the future of the iwc lies in its own hands, provided it can move forward and reach some consensus. Otherwise, pro-whaling nations will seek an alternative in regional management regimes, such as the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, which is more sympathetic to their claims, says Frovik.

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