Whaling ban remains but future is uncertain

Posted: 1 June 2007

The meeting of the International Whaling Commission concluded in Alaska yesterday with a majority vote endorsing the moratorium on commercial whaling. But Japan (and its allies) abstained from the vote and remains intent on continuing its 'scientific' whaling. It also threatened to leave the IWC. This leaves the future of the whole IWC process mired in uncertainty. We publish two reports below, one from ENS and one from WWF.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, May 31, 2007 (ENS) - The International Whaling Commission today re-authorized the existing moratorium on commercial whaling that has been in place since 1986. A group of 26 pro-whaling nations, including Japan, abstained from the vote.

Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull
Australian Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, left, discusses whaling issues with Japanese IWC Commissioner Joji Morishita at the IWC meeting. (Photo by Dave Walsh courtesy Greenpeace)
The whale conservation majority of 37 countries adopted a resolution stating that the whaling ban "remains valid," effectively overturning last year's statement by a temporary pro-whaling majority that the moratorium was "no longer required."

The vote indicates the renewed strength of the anti-whaling group of nations, observers said today, the final day of the Commission's four day annual meeting, taking place at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage. A Japanese government delegate said that the result was "expected but regrettable."

Japan stopped commercial whaling in line with the 1986 moratorium but has been hunting whales since 1987 for what it calls scientific research purposes.

Killing humpbacks

Japan's research whaling programme in Antarctica's Southern Ocean was condemned on Wednesday by a majority of the 75 IWC member nations.

The non-binding resolution proposed by New Zealand was passed with 40 votes in favour and two against. Again, the group of countries recruited by Japan as allies did not participate in the vote.

humpback whale
humpback whale
A humpback whale breaches in the Hawaiian Islands (Photo © Innerspace Visions, Nolan courtesy Greenpeace)
Japan's first Antarctic Research Programme, JARPA, from 1987 to 2005 killed nearly 6,800 whales. In 2006, Japan opened JARPA II, which calls for the killing of up to 935 minke whales each year as well as 50 endangered fin whales. Japan plans to add 50 endangered humpbacks this year.

It is this whale hunt that has brought Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd Society ships to the Southern Ocean for the past two years in attempts to stop the slaughter. A Sea Shepherd vessel tangled with a Japanese whaler in December, an incident for which each side blames the other.

Greenpeace delegation leader Shane Rattenbury said today, "The JARPA II programme that began two years ago must be immediately ended before thousands more whales die needlessly."

'Research' criticised

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Captain Paul Watson, who travelled from Australia to attend the IWC meeting, was told to leave the Captain Cook Hotel and treatened with criminal trespass charges if he re-entered the building.

Captain Paul Watson
Captain Paul Watson
Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society explains his organization's position on Japanese whaling to an Anchorage City police officer outside the Captain Cook Hotel. (Photo courtesy SSCS)
"I was informed that the Captain Cook Hotel did not welcome certain opponents of Japanese whaling operations," said Watson. Dolphin defender Ric O'Barry was also denied permission to enter the hotel.

Japan's research programme was criticised by the IWC Scientific Committee earlier this week. In its report to the plenary meeting of IWC delegates, the Scientific Committee said, there is "little incentive" for Japan to produce data collected from its JARPA whaling programme and what data has been shared, "is of little actual value."

"It is quite clear from the JARPA review workshop and subsequent discussions in the Committee that the 18 year JARPA programme involving killing 6,796 whales has added little to our understanding of minke whale biology or ecology," said the Scientific Committee, comprised of up to 200 whale biologists, many nominated by IWC member governments.

IWC members passed a resolution Wednesday that calls on the government of Japan to address 31 outstanding recommendations from the Scientific Committee and to suspend indefinitely the lethal aspects of its research programme.

The resolution recalls that the IWC has repeatedly requested that Japan desist from issuing permits to conduct lethal research on whales that are protected from commercial whaling.

It notes that the research conducted during its last phase did not meet any of its goals, does not meet any critically important research needs, and could have been conducted by non-lethal means.

minke whale
minke whale
A Japanese crew measures the body weight of a minke whale taken from the Southern Ocean. (Photo courtesy Institute of Cetacean Research)
Sue Fisher of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says Japan is not really conducting research. "This hunt under the guise of science is a joke, but sadly it is not funny. It is clearly being conducted for commercial purposes, despite a declining market in Japan for whale meat and thousands of tons of meat from previous hunts stuck in stockpiles."

Aboriginal hunt

In other decisions made this week, the IWC turned back the proposal by Brazil and Argentina for a Southern Atlantic Whale Sanctuary again. It needed a 75 per cent majority to pass but managed to secure only 60 per cent of the vote.

The current moratorium on commercial whaling does not affect aboriginal subsistence whaling and quotas were approved for several countries.

Greenland's proposal to increase its aboriginal hunt from 175 minkes and 19 fin whales to 200 minkes, 19 fin whales and two bowheads did obtain a 75 percent majority in a vote today.

The original proposal contained a request to take 10 humpbacks as well, but this was withdrawn after strong opposition from whale conservation countries.

The issue of Greenland's expanded quota was controversial. Countries including the UK, the United States and the Netherlands voted in favor, while countries such as Monaco, Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand voted against it. Latin American countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Costa Rica abstained from the vote.

The IWC also renewed aboriginal subsistence Whaling quotas for the Inuit peoples of Russia and Alaska, the Makah people of the U.S. state of Washington, and for the inhabitants of the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and The Grenadines.

Blue whale

Some good news for whale conservation did come out of the IWC meeting. The world's largest mammal, the blue whale is slowly recovering from commercial whaling, the Scientific Committee said.

Observations show that the population of blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere has grown from a several hundred to a few thousand, and there is also a small rise in the population near Iceland.

Blue whale
Blue whale
Blue whales weigh between 100 and 120 tons. The primary target species of modern whaling, blue whales were reduced in all waters to very low levels until protected in the mid-1960s, but are now showing some signs of recovery. (Photo courtesy IWC)
Once present by the hundreds of thousands, blue whale numbers are currently about 4,500 in all the world's oceans, said the IWC's chief scientist Greg Donovan.

Numbers of other large species such as fin whales and humpbacks are also rising in many parts of the world, the Scientific Committee said.

The Greenpeace delegation is concerned about what was not addressed by the IWC commissioners.

"The functional extinction of an entire species - the Baiji dolphin - got just 15 minutes of fame here at the International Whaling Commission meeting," the group said. "The Vaquita, the Mexican dolphin likely to become extinct in the near future got about as much notice."

Greenpeace said that during the four days of the IWC meeting an "estimated the 3,288 cetaceans" have died worldwide as bycatch in the nets of fishermen targeting other species, "plus the incalculable deaths from other human causes like ship strikes, pollution, bycatch and climate change." But these issues did not come up during the meeting.

Grey whale

"The survival of the highly endangered Western Pacific grey whale is dependent on Japan taking direct and swift action to reduce the numbers of these whales dying in fishing nets," said Naoko Funahashi, Japan representative of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

"Japan must act responsibly," said Funahashi. "It must take action urgently to save these whales, or they could be lost forever."

Calling themselves Teens Against Whaling, three schoolgirls from the coastal town of Port Stephens, Australia - Skye Bortoli, Ayesha Future and Caitlin Frerk - travelled to Anchorage to present the IWC chairman with a petition signed by 40,000 Australians calling for an end to Japan's lethal scientific whaling programme.

"The girls remind us of how the humpbacks have become a cherished part of the coastal communities of Australia where they pass on their migration from the Antarctic," said Australian Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who met with the girls and introduced them to Chairman Hogarth. "Perhaps more than anything, these three young ambassadors underline the depth of the feeling about whale conservation in Australia," Turnbull said.

Finally, the Commission voted today to hold a special meeting on the function and effectiveness of the body as a whole before next year's annual meeting in Santiago, Chile.

Monica Medina, director of the Pew Whale Conservation Project, welcomed the decision. "It is clear from this week's meeting that there is general agreement among the commissioners that the institution is itself at risk of extinction," Medina said.

"If we can resolve the on-going controversy over commercial whaling," she said, "we will be in a better position to address conservation comprehensively, and bring the IWC into the 21st century."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All Rights Reserved.

End this political wrangling says WWF

In a statement after the meeting WWF said that political wrangling and self-interest had preventing significant developments for whale conservation.

"The meeting marked some advances for whales but they in no way match the level of threats facing the world's whales, dolphins and porpoises today," said Gordon Shepherd, director of international policy for WWF-International.

"Governments must stop grandstanding and get serious about establishing an organization capable of dealing with the real problems these species face."

The most dramatic moment came at the end of the meeting when thegovernment of Japan, after numerous delays, withdrew its proposal for a quota of minke whales due to obvious lack of support, and stated its possible intention to leave the IWC.

This threat, and its refusal to participate in a number of votes, contradicts its stated intention to turn the IWC into a constructive and effective organization, said WWF.."As governments disagree on the same issues over and again, more and more whales are being killed by governments exploiting loopholes in the moratorium against commercial whaling. This degrades the entire spirit of the convention" said Wendy Elliott of WWF International's Global Species Program. "Time is running out for these species and for the IWC."

Positive steps

Positive steps for whales during the meeting included the IWC's Scientific Committee committing to hold a workshop on climate change, an accelerating threat to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). The commission also adopted a resolution by consensus urging strong action to save the critically endangered vaquita, a porpoise, in Mexico.

This marks the first time a conservation resolution on a small cetacean was passed by consensus. In addition, strong statements were made against the proposal by the U.S. government to lease an area of critical habitat for the world's most endangered whale population - the eastern North Pacific right whale - for oil and gas development.

"Governments like the United States that support whale conservation at the IWC must be consistent - it is critical that the US reinstates the moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the habitat of the eastern North Pacific right whale," continued Elliott. "The vaquita resolution demonstrates that the IWC can deal with conservation. This organization obviously has the potential to help whales - now is the time to use it."