Whales still in troubled waters

Posted: 23 July 2004

Author: Maya Pastakia

This year's annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the body charged with conservation of the worlds whales and whaling, resulted in mixed fortunes for both anti-whalers and whalers alike. The 18-year-long moratorium on commercial whaling still remains, while proposals to adopt whale sanctuaries in the South Pacific or the South Atlantic were shelved at least for another year.

Humpback whale breaching. Photo: NOAA
Humpback whale breaching. Photo: NOAA
Humpback whale breaching© NOAA
Attempts by Japan, a strong pro-whaling country, to lift the ban on commercial whaling in the Antarctic - an area designated as whale sanctuary by the IWC - were rejected by the Commission.

The country came under fire by conservation groups for its proposal to take another 3,000 minke whales from the Southern Ocean as commercial catch, an amount seven times its current catch of 440 minke whales from that area caught for "scientific purposes". It also asked for commercial catches of minke and Bryde's whales from waters close to Japan. While these proposals also were rejected by the IWC, anti-whaling nations attacked plans by Japan and Iceland to increase the slaughter of whales under the guise of of scientific research, expressing concern over Japan's plans to increase its catch of whales to over 800 next year. Under its reservation to the moratorium, Norway plans to take 670 minke whales and plans to triple its hunt - an amount which exceeds the country's quota for whaling under the Revised Management Scheme (RMS). Iceland said it would target 25 minke whales this year and has not ruled out expanding its programme.

Anti-whalers are now concerned that commercial whaling is continuing to expand in the face of the moratorium, despite repeated requests form the IWC for the practice to end.

Moratorium under threat

Although still in place, conservationists are worried that the moratorium on commercial whaling is in jeopardy. Pro-whaling countries regard current catch limits set under the RMS as too conservative and are pushing for higher quotas. If adopted, this would further undermine the current fragile moratorium. Indeed, the IWC Chairman, Henrik Fischer of Denmark, suggested that if the RMS were agreed, the moratorium should end, with whaling restricted to coastal waters for five years and anywhere else after that.

John Frizell of Greenpeace International, which completely opposes any return to commercial whaling, said "the idea that the moratorium whaling could be lifted is absurd."

At the end of the meeting, parties to the IWC agreed by consensus a resolution committing the organisation to "proceed expeditiously" to completing a draft RMS for "possible" adoption at its 2005 meeting in Ulsan, South Korea.

Whaling countries such as Japan, Norway and Iceland, do not want to be seen to be blocking the RMS and are hoping either that anti-whaling countries like Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Germany will block it for them, or that they can change it so as to allow higher catches.

"By blocking the IWC to resume its management tasks, the anti-whaling countries force the whaling nations to conduct whaling outside of IWC control," said Rune Frøvik, secretary to the High North Alliance, a pro-whaling organisation based in Norway's Lofoten Islands.

Buying votes

As with last year, whaling conservation groups criticised this year's voting procedures, claiming that Japan was buying votes from poor countries for aid. The International Animal Welfare Fund, Greenpeace and other NGOs claimed that Japan had "bought" votes from 16 poor countries by offering fisheries aid in exchange for support of Japan's whaling policies.

WWF, the conservation agency, blamed the failure of the IWC to create a South Pacific Whale sanctuary for a third year in a row on voting tactics used by Japan and its allies. "This sanctuary would have provided enormous benefits to both whales and people in the Pacific but once again it was blocked by countries taking orders from Tokyo," said Chris Howe, conservation director at WWF-New Zealand.

If passed, the sanctuary would have covered 26 million square kilometres of the Pacific, south of the equator. WWF says that many whale populations remain depleted as a result of past commercial whaling, such as the humpbacked whales which have failed to make a come back in significant numbers in their former breeding grounds in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa and New Zealand

As a response to complaints, Acting IWC Chairman Roland Schmitten of the United States announced a creation of an IWC working group to develop a "code of conduct", including measures for explusion of NGOs.

Greenpeace also called for the IWC to be more open and "transparent", criticising the way RMS proposals were discussed behind closed doors.

Endangered whales

Despite decades of protection, seven out of the 13 great whale species are still endangered or vulnerable. Despite the moratorium on commercial whaling and the declaration of virtually the whole of the Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary, each year over 1,000 whales are killed for the commercial market.

The most seriously endangered is the Northern Atlantic Right Whale, with approximately 300-350 individuals remaining. Co-authors of a study, Masami Fujiwara and Hal Caswell, reported in Nature that the population growth rate of North Atlantic Right whales has declined "below replacement level" because of increased mortality rates of mothers, reducing the specie's reproductive strength.

The Northwest Pacific (Asia) gray whale population is critically endangered as it is geographically distinct, and is thought to have less than 50 reproductive individuals. This subpopulation was hunted to near extinction and remains severely depleted.

The Western North Pacific gray whale may also be under threat from oil and gas extraction in its prime feeding habitat off Sakhalin in the Russian Far East. Oil companies, Shell and Exxon, are already extracting oil and gas from this habitat, and BP are exploring. Conservation groups fear that the construction of the off shore drilling platform and the installation of a seabed pipeline near Sakhalin Island could drive away the whales from their only feeding ground. Only 100 western gray whales including 23 reproductive females are known to exist.

"The potential for a catastrophic spill from Shell's oil project poses an unacceptable risk to this highly endangered whale population," said Dr Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF's Global Species Programme. The IWC passed a resolution calling on members to minimise disturbance to the feeding ground.

"Unfortunately, whales face a huge range of threats today, including chemical and noise pollution, vessel strikes and bycatch in fishing nets. The impact of whaling on whale populations cannot be considered in isolation and must be addressed in light of the whole range of threats," said Sue Fisher of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Maya Pastakia is Assistant Editor of People & the Planet website.

Related links: The International Whaling Commission (IWC)

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

Greenpeace International

WWF International