By Meg Lamb
Last month the International Whaling Commission (IWC) held its biennial meeting in Slovenia. The meeting ran for five days and saw representatives from more than 60 nations come together to discuss whaling and other issues affecting cetaceans. The gathering marked the 70th anniversary of the IWC’s founding and the 30th anniversary of the whaling moratorium.
Despite the ban on commercial whaling, over 30,000 whales have been killed by commercial whaling practices since the ban was introduced in 1986.
The real threat to whale populations and the effectiveness of the IWC comes from the actions of pro-whaling countries that continue to carry out commercial whaling.
This was the major discussion point at this year’s meeting.
What is the IWC?
The IWC is the global body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling. It was established in 1946 under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and currently has 88 member governments from countries all over the world. It meets every two years and adopts regulations on catch limits, whaling methods and protected areas.
Some people argue the IWC has been largely ineffective in helping preserve global whale populations over the first few decades. However the Commission has taken some encouraging steps. It established a global prohibition on commercial whaling in 1986 and created a dedicated conservation committee in 2003. These developments recognised the need for international co-operation in protecting already over-exploited whale populations.
Discussions at the 2016 meeting
Unfortunately the global ban on commercial whaling does not prevent countries from killing whales for “scientific research” purposes. For example, a Japanese whaling expedition killed 333 whales, including about 200 pregnant females in March this year. This is in spite of a ruling made by the International Court of Justice in 2014 declaring Japan’s whaling program was not scientific.
The IWC’s lack of enforcement powers means countries such as Iceland and Norway also continue to carry out commercial whale hunting under legal loopholes.
Fortunately this issue was discussed extensively at this year’s IWC meeting, and a resolution was passed to tighten up the current arrangement which allows countries to approve their own permits and quotas for scientific whaling without any external scrutiny or need for explanation.
Australia has, and continues to assert that lethal research methods are completely unnecessary. The recent resolution should in theory mean requests for permits to kill whales for research purposes would need the approval of the IWC before being carried out. However, the IWC’s resolutions are not binding. Unfortunately this means even if the commission takes the view that lethal research shouldn’t be carried out, countries may just ignore the conclusion.
The meeting also gave formal recognition to the benefits whales bring to the ocean, especially in the fight against climate change, and discussed the urgent need to work with Mexico to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.
Sadly, the proposal to create a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary was dismissed. This issue has been on the agenda since 2012. If adopted, it would be the fourth sanctuary established by the IWC. As scientific whaling is prohibited in the sanctuary, it would provide a much needed tool to fight the dangers that whales and other marine animals face. Hopefully the proposal will be adopted at the 2018 meeting in Brazil.
Overall, there is still much to be done to ensure whales are properly protected. It should be remembered that it wasn’t until 1978 that Australia stopped commercial whaling – and today we are leading the way in the conservation of these amazing creatures.