Resumption of Whaling and Fate of Whaling Commission Still Undecided

Amid almost unprecedented hype and media attention, the 62nd meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) opened in Agadir, Morocco in June, with AWI’s Susan Millward in attendance and D.J. Schubert serving for the second year as the non-governmental representative on the US delegation. Much was at stake at this meeting, in light of an alarming proposal put forth to allow for a resumption of commercial whaling. Eventually, the proposal failed, thanks to a strong bloc of Latin American and European countries and (always stalwart) Australia—countries that didn’t buy the proponents’ fanciful claim that fewer whales would be killed and the IWC saved through a sanctioned resumption of commercial whaling.

The US, regrettably, not only helped draft the proposal (along with New Zealand and the Commission’s Chair and Vice-Chair), but had also strongly lobbied for a deal prior to and during the meeting—a deal that would have undermined the nearly 25-year-old commercial whaling moratorium. Sadly, the proposal has not been entirely discarded but, rather, countries have been asked to pause for reflection prior to the IWC’s next meeting in 2011.

In advance of the meeting, AWI teamed up with several groups to develop a critique of the proposal and—in partnership with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Humane Society International—created an interactive web-based tool to graphically demonstrate the enormous success of the 1986 commercial whaling moratorium in saving whales. This information along with other documents and persistent efforts to inform member nations’ commissioners about the deficiencies in the deal were successful in countering arguments for the proposal.

Proponents claimed that the moratorium hadn’t worked because whale killing for commercial gain continues (by Japan, Norway and Iceland, exploiting loopholes in the whaling convention). Therefore, commercial whaling should be allowed. This ludicrous and circular argument in favor of rewarding rogue whalers by legitimizing their actions had gained ground because of intense lobbying and spin by its drafters, with some unfortunate support from a few conservation-oriented organizations.

AWI and the remainder of the whale advocates at the meeting were united in staunchly opposing the deal. AWI opposes any effort that does not include an end to all forms of commercial whaling. It is inherently cruel, antiquated and unnecessary, threatens the long-term survival of some whale species, and ignores the vital role whales play in our planet’s ecosystems. Those who opposed the deal did not go unrepresented. The European Union developed its own common position for the meeting, which included: 1) setting a timeframe for an end to commercial whaling, 2) using scientifically based catch quotas in the interim, 3) no whaling in IWC-designated sanctuaries, 4) only domestic use of whale products, 5) penalties for the abuse of loopholes, and 6) a timetable for renegotiating the whaling convention. The Latin countries, or "Buenos Aires Group," had issued a similar declaration, and these countries, together with Australia, formed a powerful conservation bloc throughout.

The US was a key advocate for the proposal, with impassioned pleas by its commissioner for “control” of the rogue whaling by Japan, Iceland and Norway which, according to the commissioner, has recently escalated. In fact, while the number of whales killed for commercial purposes has inched up over the years, the body count today pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of whales killed annually only a few decades ago. Moreover and not surprisingly, the increase in the self-allocated whaling quotas by these nations has largely occurred since negotiations over the deal began, to corrupt the process and to pad whaling quotas in anticipation of a deal being struck. Similar obstructive tactics have created the alleged dysfunction that contributed to the perceived need for a deal in the first place.

The US commissioner also complained about the inequity of the IWC in tightly regulating aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW), such as that conducted by Alaskan natives, while loopholes allow commercial whaling to take place with little IWC oversight. AWI acknowledges this inequity, but feels that ASW should not be the main driver of US whaling policy. Since 2002, when the five-year ASW quota of bowhead whales for Alaskan Inupiat was blocked at the annual IWC meeting by the pro-whaling faction (only to be approved at a subsequent special meeting), strong US leadership on conservation measures at the IWC has eroded. In 2007, after the bowhead quota was again threatened, then-Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) stepped in to help secure its approval. The price of passage, however, was US agreement to enter into the "future" negotiations. The resulting proposal to sanction commercial whaling would have provided also for renewal of ASW quotas without a vote for ten years. Thus, the failure of the present package is seen by some as placing the 2012 and 2017 quotas in jeopardy. While AWI abhors subsistence quotas being used for political purposes, the US should fight such low tactics rather than allow itself to be hobbled by them.

It wasn’t until day three of the plenary that the deal was shelved and the Commission attended to other business, including a proposal from Denmark on behalf of Greenland to allow for an ASW quota of ten humpback whales in addition to the bowhead, fin and minke whale quotas already approved for its natives. The US and Denmark concurrently introduced a joint proposal that retained only the ASW language from the deal allowing the ASW quotas to extend to 2017. This last ditch effort by the US to avert the 2012 quota threat was unsuccessful, and Denmark’s proposal was accepted by consensus after it agreed to an EU deal to limit the quota to 9 humpbacks and to reduce its fin whale quota from 19 to 10, essentially replacing the 9 fins with an equal number of the smaller humpbacks.

The pause in negotiations should be used by the US and other conservation-minded nations to rethink their strategy for winning the whaling wars. The past three years have wasted time, money, and carbon as commissioners traveled worldwide trying to craft a deal that, in the end, few found palatable. As the deal was negotiated, thousands of whales were slaughtered for commercial purposes by three rogue whaling nations displaying little serious interest in compromise. Appeasement has not worked. The US needs to use its expansive economic, political and diplomatic clout to save the whales and the IWC.