Whaling moratorium in jeopardy

Posted: 22 October 2002

At a special meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) on October 14, 2002, delegates voted by a margin of just one vote to allow pro-whaling Iceland to join the IWC. The country does so with a 'reservation' on the moratorium on whaling which has been in place since 1986, further undermining the authority of the IWC.

In summary, this means that Iceland has pledged not to allow commercial whaling before 2006, and only then if progress is being made on the IWC's Revised Management Scheme. However, as a member of the IWC, Iceland would be technically legal if it authorised whaling for "scientific purposes" immediately. (Iceland did carry out "scientific whaling" in 1986 to 1989, while they were still a member of the IWC). "This is a shameful vote and a shocking decision," said Cassandra Phillips, WWF's Senior Policy Adviser. "It will have long-lasting repercussions, not only for the IWC but all international conventions because it will no longer be possible to make binding decisions if Parties (governments) can leave and then join again at will with a reservation - in this case to the moratorium." Ms Phillips adds: "This could be an open door for Iceland to follow Japan by exploiting a loophole in the moratorium that allows whaling for so-called 'scientific' research." The vote was supported by Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. In a controversial move, Iceland itself was allowed to vote for its own inclusion.

May meeting

Earlier this year in May, Japan and Norway were defeated in their attempt to overturn the moratorium on commercial whaling at the 54th International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting which took place in the port of Shimonoseki, Japan. The bitter feuding among members which characterised this year's IWC meeting has seriously shaken the authority of the international body.

Many observers fear the bitter divisions between pro and anti-whaling countries have undermined the credibility of the IWC and the 16-year-old moratorium on commercial whaling.

The proposal to resume whaling was defeated by 25 votes to 16. It was opposed by Britain, Australia and New Zealand, as well as by the United States. But the pro-whaling block got its revenge by stopping an American and Russian request to allow limited hunting by indigenous people.

Five isolated coastal communities - including the Inuit of Alaska and Greenland, and the Chukotka people of Siberia - had been permitted to kill a small number of whales every year for their own use.

All the members of the IWC agree that whale meat is an important source of protein for people in harsh environments. But Japan insists it will allow the quotas only if its coastal fishermen, who do not suffer from a lack of protein, are allowed to take 50 whales themselves. Masayuki Komatsu, a senior member of Japan's delegation, said: "This year the United States delegation has a message to take back home - end the hypocrisy. The US requests for quotas are a complete double standard."

A representative of the Chukotka people said that preventing his people from whaling would be disastrous. "Today was comparable to the events of 11 September for the Chukotka," he told the delegates. "Who destroyed the whale stock throughout the world? Was it the indigenous people? You know that it was not." Never before have the aboriginal quotas been rejected.

Crucial to the final outcome was a group of small developing countries, including Antigua and Barbuda and land-locked Mongolia, which support Japan. Opponents claim this is because they have been bribed with overseas development aid.

Block votes

The conservation agency, WWF, accused Japan of buying votes and of using block vote tactics which effectively prevented the Commission from adopting vital whale sanctuaries in the South Pacific and South Atlantic Oceans, and for failing to deal with crucial business related to the conservation of small cetaceans such as small whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

WWF wants next year's IWC meeting to tackle the important proposals dropped this year, including resolutions condemning Japan's scientific whaling, and on the relationship between IWC and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES. They are calling on CITES to ban any resumption of the commercial whale meat trade.

"We must not forget that commercial whaling is on the increase, and more than 1,300 whales are being killed each year by commercial whalers. WWF calls on all countries that are members of the IWC to work in good faith over the next 12 months to get commercial whaling back under international control, and work to ensure that the 55th meeting of the IWC will actually deliver some real conservation benefits for whales and other cetaceans," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF International's Species Programme.

Despite decades of protection, seven of the 13 great whale species remain endangered and commercial whaling is not only still happening - it is growing. Since the moratorium on whaling was put in place by the IWC, nearly 23,000 whales from five species have been killed by commercial whalers, largely from Japan and Norway. Both countries also announced their intention to trade whale meat this year, despite the fact that this meat is often highly contaminated, and is banned internationally under the CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

Related link:

WWF Species Programme