IWC64: AWI Cries Foul over Abuse of Subsistence Hunt Quotas

The 64th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), held in Panama City, Panama, represented a challenge for the Contracting Parties: to overcome the difficulties that led to the disruption of the IWC’s 63rd meeting, and to do so without agreement on what constitutes a quorum and without a chair.

An added stressor for some at the Panama meeting was the fate of anticipated proposals for renewal of all the aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) quotas for natives in the United States, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), Greenland, and the Russian Federation. Others were anxious to pass a proposal for the establishment of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, the same proposal that had prompted a mass walkout by the pro-whaling bloc the previous year, resulting in chaos and the quorum confusion (involving whether those who remained in the room could form a quorum and thus vote in the absence of those who bolted).

Fortunately, while some of the outcomes could have been better, the meeting did not repeat last year’s fiasco and much was accomplished. The main reason for the success was the person who eventually stepped in as chair—Switzerland Commissioner Bruno Mainini. True to his country’s reputation, Mr. Mainini was everything needed in a good chair: neutral, punctual and efficient.

By mutual agreement, the quorum issue was set aside and the meeting progressed to the still-pending sanctuary proposal by Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and Uruguay. Sadly, it failed to gain the necessary three-quarters majority, with opposing votes predictably coming from Japan, Norway, Iceland, and their allies. After a short discussion on the “Future of the IWC,” reports came from the chair of the Scientific Committee on the status of various populations of whales currently protected from commercial whaling—including some still targeted in lethal research whaling by Japan, commercial whaling under objection by Norway, and under reservation by Iceland. Of particular interest is the apparent decline in numbers of southern hemisphere minke whales—the species targeted by Japanese whalers in Antarctica—and the situation with regard to western North Pacific gray whales.

AWI highlighted the perilous state of western North Pacific gray whales in its Summer 2004 AWI Quarterly, due to past overhunting and now to proximity of their feeding grounds to major oil and gas operations off Sakhalin Island, Russia. With only about 140 animals remaining, these critically endangered whales face a very uncertain future. Of recent interest is telemetry evidence showing some of the whales moving around the Pacific Rim to the shores of North America. One animal was even tracked from Sakhalin to the traditional eastern North Pacific gray whale breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, and back to Sakhalin. An additional 14 animals have been matched with sightings in Mexico and Russia, suggesting the eastern and western North Pacific gray whales are not such separate populations. This has huge conservation implications for the Sakhalin animals, as well as the gray whales the Makah Tribe of Washington state seeks to hunt.

The issue of ASW was introduced at the end of the first day of the IWC plenary meeting, with reports on the previous week’s meeting of the ASW subcommittee and from the chair of the Scientific Committee on the status of whale stocks subject to subsistence hunts. This allowed for countries to start staking out their various positions, particularly with regard to whether the Bequian people of SVG actually qualify as indigenous and whether the blatant commerciality of the Greenland hunts justifies the current quotas, let alone an increase as requested by Denmark on behalf of its autonomous dependent territory.

AWI had prepared reports for the meeting on both these issues, which we distributed to delegates to aid in the discussions. The first report detailed the humpback whaling conducted in SVG and the reasons against renewing the quota, principally because the whaling is not conducted by aboriginal/indigenous peoples, there is a strong commercial element to the hunt, and hunting techniques are decidedly inhumane.

The second AWI report focused on the commerciality of Greenland’s hunt and was presented jointly with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). WDCS visited in 2010 and AWI visited in the fall of 2011 to investigate the sale of whale products in tourist restaurants. A telephone/email survey conducted by AWI in June ahead of the meeting revealed that the majority of its tourist restaurants offer whale meat from Greenland’s ASW quota to tourists, and further confirmed that “native food tourism” is actively promoted by the government and is taking hold in the territory. Disembarking cruise ship passengers and other tourists are invited to dine on barbequed whale, whale burgers, and whale with tagliatelli and tomato sauce. Travel companies also advertise tours that include whale meat served in Greenlanders’ homes, in camps, or at lodges.

The ASW quota renewal requests were introduced as two separate proposals—one by Denmark on behalf of Greenland natives, and the second by the United States, Russian Federation and SVG, with the latter bundled into a single proposal to be decided on an all-or-nothing basis. This proposal for six-year quotas (2013–2018) asked for 336 bowhead whales from the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (for US and Russian natives), 744 eastern North Pacific gray whales (for US and Russian natives) and 24 western North Atlantic humpback whales (for SVG natives). AWI strongly opposed this strategy of bundling proposals, designed to ensure that the more doubtful requests (SVG and Makah) were protected by those considered more unassailable (Alaska and Russia). The Makah have been barred from engaging in any whaling since a 2003 ruling by a US federal appellate court, pending compliance with domestic legal requirements. As such, a quota issued now could not be acted upon, anyway.

After the joint proposal was introduced, countries lined up to speak in favor and against it, with many countries opposing the Bequian request on the grounds—as outlined in the AWI report—that the hunt does not qualify as a subsistence hunt. Japan, Iceland, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and other pro-whaling countries supported the proposal while others were conflicted—supporting the US and Russian parts of the proposal while opposing the Bequian component. After much discussion, the debate ended and the proposal was put to a vote. The countries voted in line with their statements, with those expressing conflict falling on either side. When the dust settled, the proposal passed with more than the necessary three-quarters majority. Of the 12 Latin countries, only Mexico and the host country of Panama had supported the proposal. Monaco and India abstained. In explaining its yes vote, Mexico took issue with the package approach, saying that it didn’t want a precedent to be set and demanding that it not happen again. An almost audible collective sigh of relief emanated from the US delegation, though not from its NGOs, including AWI—which was appalled that the United States would help shield blatant abuses of the IWC convention in order to secure its own bowhead quota.

The meeting continued with the introduction by Denmark of its proposed Schedule amendment on behalf of Greenland for an increase to its subsistence quotas of bowhead, fin, minke, and humpback whales. Greenland responded to AWI’s findings on the commercialization of the Greenland hunts by claiming that revenue from the sale of whale products was used to purchase whaling equipment. They justified the sale of whale meat by saying that because it did not maximize profits, it was not the same as commercial whaling. After a discussion, the item was held over until later in the week, at which time Denmark immediately asked for a vote. After hearing two speakers—the European Union opposing and United States supporting—the chair moved to the vote. The proposal failed, with all EU and Latin countries opposed and the pro-whaling nations and the United States in favor. In explaining their vote, Ecuador and others opposing the quota increase said that the commerciality of the hunts—as evidenced by the work of AWI and WDCS—brought the alleged need for more whales into question.

With ASW issues resolved, the next major issue was the announcement by South Korea that it intends to resume scientific whaling on western North Pacific minke whales to obtain “more data on stock structure and abundance estimates,” and its urging of expedited completion of the Revised Management Procedure—the method used to calculate numbers of whales that could be taken from each stock sustainably if the moratorium were ever to be lifted. This led to a cacophony of opposition from the conservation-minded countries and the usual support from those promoting whaling. Monaco summed it up best by stating that scientific whaling is obsolete—a sad legacy of a 60 year old instrument, that cetacean science has moved on significantly since, and that there is no reason whatsoever to obtain data through lethal means. Subsequent to the meeting, various reports emerged from sectors of the South Korean government, first reversing its announcement, and then reaffirming it. In response, AWI drafted a letter to the South Korean president, co-signed by several groups (including ones based in South Korea), opposing any attempts to resume scientific whaling.

Other important issues from the meeting included the consensus passage of a resolution—introduced by Germany on behalf of European nations—on the degradation of the marine environment with respect to impacts on cetaceans and humans. Monaco failed to gain sufficient support for a resolution on the management of highly migratory cetaceans in the high seas. The resolution highlighted the fact that only 38 cetaceans are listed in the IWC Schedule, and invited parties to collaborate with the UN General Assembly in relation to the “significant unregulated catches of highly migratory species of cetaceans” that continue to take place, “with a view to contributing to the conservation efforts of the IWC.” The meeting concluded by addressing more mundane but equally important issues relating to discussions of the work of the finance and administration committee, movement to biennial meetings, and the establishment of a bureau. Mr. Mainini’s tenure as chair came to an end with the consensus appointments of Saint Lucia Commissioner Jeannine Compton-Antoine as chair and Belgium Commissioner Frédéric Chemay as vice-chair of the Commission for the next two years.

Humpback Whaling in Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines: The IWC’s Failed Responsibility
Since the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines joined the IWC in 1981, whalers on the Grenadine island of Bequia are reported to have struck and landed 29 humpback whales and struck and lost at least five more. While this constitutes a small removal from a population of whales estimated to number over 11,000, it does not excuse the IWC’s three decades of inattention to many problems with the hunt, including the illegal killing of at least nine humpback whale calves.

Humpback whaling in SVG commenced in 1875 as a primarily commercial activity. In the 1970s, the focus of the operation changed from whale oil for export to meat and blubber for domestic consumption, and a small scale artisanal hunt continued in Bequia despite the IWC’s ban on hunting North Atlantic humpback whales. In 1987, the IWC accepted SVG’s assurances that the Bequian whaling operation would not outlast its last surviving harpooner and granted SVG an ASW quota. Since then, the IWC has renewed this “temporary” quota six times, including doubling it in 2002, two years after the harpooner died. The IWC as a whole has accepted 30 years of infractions, non-compliance with IWC regulations, and excuses from SVG that the IWC does not tolerate in any other ASW hunt. The following are some of the primary issues:

  • Whaling in Bequia is not conducted by aboriginal/indigenous peoples and does not have a long and unbroken history as a subsistence hunt.
  • SVG has never properly substantiated Bequia’s cultural and nutritional needs for hunting humpback whales.
  • SVG hunters use techniques (including cold harpoons and speedboats) that are inhumane.
  • Flensing and distribution of whale meat is poorly controlled and chaotic; products intended only for subsistence consumption on Bequia are sold on the main island of St. Vincent and to tourists.
  • SVG has a poor record of providing samples, photographs and data needed by the IWC.
  • Bequian whalers repeatedly targeted mother/calf pairs, a practice banned by the IWC.

AWI’s detailed report on SVG whaling can be obtained online at, or by contacting us.

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