Noise Raises a Ruckus at the IWC

Ben White and Susan Tomiak attended the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting held in Sorrento, Italy from July 19 through 22. Like most years, the rumors were rifethat pro-whaling nations would finally have financed enough countries to join the body to win a majority, that Japan would break from the IWC and set up its own organization, and that the pro-whalers would boycott the Conservation Committee meeting. And, like most years, the actual proceedings were rather tedious, with a few scary moments to keep us on our toes. When the plenary opened, Japan threw the first punch by proposing that all non-killing issues be removed from the agenda. This ludicrous offering failed when it came to a vote, thus quashing the first rumor and setting the tone. The 56th meeting of the IWC had begun.

The press were drawn to the Japanese delegation prior to the commencement of the IWC meeting. Susan Tomiak/AWI


Aboriginal subsistence whaling continues in several countries (including the U.S., Greenland, and the Russian Federation) with little control or recourse by the IWC for violations. 2007 will be the decisive year when quotas for all aboriginal species of whale will be up for revision. In a dramatic and scurrilous move, the U.S. delegation teamed up with the Russians to push through the removal of one of the fundamental requirements of any aboriginal whaling planproof that there is a nutritional need for the whalemeat. This requirement was never met when the Makah tribe revived their killing of gray whales in Washington State, and the U.S., no doubt, felt legally exposed.

The Revised Management Scheme (RMS) also continues to rear its ugly head, being essentially a plan to manage whaling if and when the moratorium is lifted. Each year there is a threat that the latest RMS will be adopted and this year was no exception. But it appears that deadlock and dispute will still rule into the future due to the total intransigence of the Japanese, who refuse to consider dropping their bogus scientific whaling even if an RMS is agreed to. Still, AWI is concerned about what appears to be the widespread resignation by many nations (including the U.S.) to adopt the RMS which we see as a mechanism to resume commercial whaling.

The Southern Ocean Sanctuary was up for review. Japan not only proposed its abolition, but argued that its whalers be allowed to enter the area to kill 2,914 Antarctic minke whales. Thankfully, Japan’s proposal was voted down. Several nations proposed the establishment of new ocean sanctuaries in the South Pacific and South Atlantic. Both failed to gain the necessary three-quarters majorities to be adopted.

The 56th IWC reported that despite the long period of protection since the moratorium in 1986, several populations of great whales remain highly endangered. These include most bowhead whales (especially those at risk from non-IWC countries, including Canada), gray whales in the western Pacific, all northern right whales, and various populations of blue whales. Additional threats to whales include ship strikes, bycatch in fishing gear and environmental causes such as sound and toxic pollution.

Whaling itself, of course, is not helping. Table 1 summarizes the reported catches by IWC member nations in the 2003 and 2003/4 seasons. Having originally “taken exception” to the moratorium, Norway continues to whale commercially and sets its own catch limits. The aboriginal subsistence whaling nations continue to take their toll, and Japan and Iceland continue to whale, under the “special scientific permit” loophole. Indeed, Japan proposed increased catch limits of 100 minke whales and 150 Bryde’s whales for the next season to be taken by coastal community-based whaling. The proposal was rejected, but unfortunately the Commission did agree (thanks in part to compromise wording put forth by the U.S. delegation) to work to “alleviate the continued difficulties caused by the cessation of minke whaling to the communities of Abashiri, Ayukawa, Wadaura, and Taiji.”

AWI is very pleased to report that human-caused ocean noise was the focus of unprecedented attention at the IWC meeting, especially in the Scientific Committee which comprised 186 experts from around the world who met in the weeks preceding the plenary. The Committee held a mini-symposium dealing solely with human-generated noise and made some excellent recommendations to the IWC which were adopted in full. The adjacent box highlights key statements from the Scientific Committee report, all adopted by every single country of the IWC. This is tremendous news and gives AWI powerful ammunition in our fight against sonar and seismic activities.

The timing of the IWC was also perfect, as the Marine Mammal Commission held the third of its Acoustic Committee meetings in California during the week following the IWC meeting. The findings of the IWC Scientific Committee were presented to the Acoustic Committee. Amazingly the Navy representative on the Committee dismissed the findings of this internationally recognized body of whale experts and asked whether the findings had been peer reviewed!

Other environmental threats to whales discussed at the IWC meeting included toxic pollution. The Chairman of the Scientific Committee reported on concerns ranging from organochlorines, heavy metals and radionucleides in bowhead whales, to oil-born aromatic hydrocarbons in the seas off Gabon, a site of intensive oil and gas exploration. Contaminated whalemeat is a real issue in whaling countries, particularly to pregnant and nursing women. Indeed, the governments of Iceland, Denmark, and Norway have all issued health warnings about the consumption of contaminated whalemeat, although they are also reportedly trying to increase public consumption to keep up with the supply. The Conservation Committee (which Japan and its “client” nations did boycott) managed to determine terms of reference and survived for another year.

The IWC is an international treaty organization increasingly corrupted by the financial leverage of one countryJapan. Organizationally, it is working from an obsolete document lacking in any dispute resolution process, apparently dooming the group to deadlock. Its purpose is to regulate a brutal and obsolete industry that would collapse without subsidy. When the IWC meets next year in Ulsan, Korea, AWI will be there, perennially making the case that it is past time that whales be allowed to live in peace.

IWC Agreement on Ocean Noise

The 57 nations that make up the IWC agreed with the IWC Scientific Committee that:

  • There is “now compelling evidence implicating anthropogenic [human-caused] sound as a potential threat to marine mammals. This threat is manifested at both regional and ocean-scale level that could impact populations of animals.”
  • “The amount of sound energy introduced into certain ocean regions by humans has been increasing by at least 3 decibels per decade over the last 60 years.”
  • “...[S]ound exposures from mid-frequency sonars…coincide with mass strandings of beaked whales since sonar introductions in the 1960’s.”
  • “The weight of accumulated evidence now associates mid-frequency, military sonar with atypical beaked whale mass strandings. This evidence is very convincing and appears overwhelming.”
  • “The Committee views with great concern the impacts on large whales in critical habitats from exposures to seismic sound impulses....”
  • “...[T]he Committee agrees that there is now compelling evidence implicating military sonar as a direct impact on beaked whales in particular.”
  • “The Committee also agrees that evidence of increased sounds from other sources, including ships and seismic activities, were cause for serious concern.”
  • “…[M]easures to protect species and habitats cannot always wait for scientific certainty, as encoded in the precautionary principle.”

[emphasis theirs]