So what are we doing at the IWC?
One of the toughest gigs in a whale conservationist’s calendar is attending the meetings of the International Whaling Commission. The International Whaling Commission, or IWC, is the body that makes decisions about whale hunting and whale conservation. Its membership is made up of both pro- and anti-whaling nations, as well as countries who have no interest either way and are only there because Japan pays them to be. These member nations hold a summit every two years and our role at these meetings is to provide governments with the evidence and specialist knowledge they need to make informed decisions and cast considered votes on the issues being discussed.
WDC’s Stop Whaling team leader Astrid Fuchs and campaigner Carolina Cassani are in Slovenia for the 66th meeting of the IWC which begins today. When I say it’s one of the toughest things they have to do, I’m not exaggerating. Astrid, Carolina and their team have spent months preparing for this week – producing scientific and legal analysis, writing reports and briefings for governments and coordinating with our friends in other conservation organisations to make sure we are all working together and not duplicating effort. It is a tremendous amount of work and I have nothing but admiration for my colleagues who manage to pull all of this together and then travel half way around the world to work round the clock making sure that the government delegates have what they need when they need it.
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In 1982, IWC members voted to suspend all commercial whaling as we had hunted many species and populations pretty much to extinction. In 1986 this moratorium on commercial whaling entered into full force. Thirty years on and thanks in no small part to WDC’s efforts at IWC meetings, this ban is still in place and many populations are showing signs of recovery. But while most countries respect the ban, there are three notable exceptions: Japan, Norway and Iceland. Between them, their hunters kill around 2,000 whales every year. Iceland and Norway, the world´s last defiantly commercial whaling nations, simply refuse to be bound by the whaling ban. Japan uses a different excuse exploiting a loophole that allows the killing of whales for research purposes.
The IWC meeting room is a hotbed of political manoeuvring and scheming. These three main whaling nations are vocal participants. Japan brings along its entourage of countries who have been given development aid in return for votes. Denmark makes life difficult for the rest of the EU voting bloc as it protects the whaling interests of the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Even a nominally anti-whaling nation like the USA gets held over a barrel by Japan as it has an aboriginal hunt of its own in Alaska. And looking to the non-governmental organisations like WDC for advice are the forward-thinking, anti-whaling nations like the UK, Australia, the Latin American countries and Germany. As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s a tough environment and the agenda for the meeting is packed. Astrid and Carolina will be focussing on four key things:
- We want to stop Japan’s so-called ‘scientific’ whaling in the Antarctic.
In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan´s research programme had no scientific merit and was therefore illegal. But, without approval from the IWC, Japan continues to slaughter whales in the Antarctic regardless under a new ‘research’ programme. Australia has put forward a proposal, to be discussed at this meeting, that would mean any permits to kill whales for research purposes would have to be approved by the IWC based on stringent scientific criteria. Of course, Japan could continue to ignore the IWC but this proposal would make it far more difficult for them to do so. IWC experts have already declared that this new programme does not justify the killing of whales for scientific purposes. Astrid and Carolina will be working hard to generate support for Australia’s proposal. If a majority of nations vote in favour of this new system, it should end Japan´s pretend science, saving hundreds of whales every year.
- We want a new whale sanctuary in the Southern Atlantic between South America and the west coast of Africa.
Many of us have been calling for this for decades and we hope that this year will be the year that whales finally get the protected area they need and deserve. This will be a place where they can live their lives safe and free from the threats of hunting, entanglement in fishing gear, oil and gas exploration and development and all the other dangers that humans inflict on them every day.
- We want to halt the commercialisation of the hunts that are only allowed to meet the subsistence needs of groups of aboriginal people.
The IWC has historically allowed the hunting of a limited number of whales to feed those people deemed to have a genuine and continuous nutritional, cultural, and subsistence need for whale meat and blubber. However, Greenland, wants to expand its sales of whale meat and is proposing that they should be able to decide for themselves how many whales they can kill, without needing approval by the IWC. We know the current quotas are already abused – a WDC investigation exposed whale meat, supposed to be only for local people, on sale to tourists in Greenland.
- We want to ensure the moratorium is kept firmly in place
Japan has put forward a paper to be discussed at the meeting. They want to explore ways to “achieve both sustainable management and conservation of whales.” In other words, they want to debate how to bring back commercial whaling in a twenty first century world concerned with conservation. Astrid and Carolina are prepared and armed with the arguments and evidence they need and are ready to counter Japan’s claims. We intend to make sure the whaling ban stays.
It’s a lot to try to achieve in one week, and these are only the highlights. Astrid and Carolina will report back as the meeting progresses, so you can check in on how we are doing. As I said, it’s a tough gig, but not nearly as tough as the whales have had it at the hands of humans. Tough doesn’t even come close. We owe them big time.
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