AWI Reports from IWC65

The 65th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) opened on September 15 in the picturesque Slovenian city of Portorož. Key issues on the IWC's agenda at this plenary meeting—the first since the Commission went to biennial meetings in 2012—included a proposal for a whaling quota for Greenland, a renewed proposal from Japan to create a new type of commercial whaling, and a resolution from several West African nations on food security in relation to whales. New Zealand sought to enshrine the March 2014 International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision over Japan’s lethal research whaling, and a renewed proposal from Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Uruguay and Gabon sought to create a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic. Chile proposed a resolution to increase civil society participation at the IWC. Overall it was a successful meeting with major advances made in the arena of civil society participation and on whale conservation.

The Ups…
Prior to the meeting, a large number of conservation-minded non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including AWI, had written to IWC chair, Jeannine Compton-Antoine, asking for broader participation by civil society at the meeting. On the Saturday before the meeting started, AWI’s Susan Millward and two colleagues met with the chair to discuss our letter, and were able to secure a commitment from her to allow the NGOs to speak under each agenda item during the meeting. This process worked extremely well and the value of having NGOs participate was validated by the adoption by consensus of a resolution by Chile on civil society participation and transparency at the IWC on the last day of the meeting. Chile’s similar resolution seeking greater transparency of and accessibility to the IWC’s Scientific Committee also passed by consensus after it was revised several times.

New Zealand’s resolution on whaling under special permit (so-called “scientific whaling”) sought to enshrine the ICJ decision that Japan’s program in the Antarctic was not in compliance with the provision of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that authorizes scientific whaling (see Spring 2014 AWI Quarterly). This issue predominated the meeting and was not resolved until the final day, with member countries falling into distinct and predictable camps. Japan introduced a document detailing its interpretation of the ICJ ruling and reiterating that it intends to return to the Southern Ocean in 2015 to continue its research program with a plan revised to comply with the ICJ ruling. Several countries, including the United States, protested—calling for the Commission to use the ruling to curb scientific whaling. Several countries wanted recognition of the Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary. Eventually a revised version of the New Zealand resolution was proposed on the final day and New Zealand called for a vote. It passed, with 35 yes votes, 20 no votes and 5 abstentions. In explaining its no vote, Japan announced that collection of scientific information is essential to the effective management of whales in accordance with the whaling convention.

Even though commercial whaling by Iceland and Norway were not specifically on the meeting’s agenda, several countries took the opportunity to criticize both countries. Italy took the floor on behalf of the European Union and chastised Iceland for its commercial whaling—calling attention to a démarche condemning Iceland’s actions that 28 EU members and 7 other countries, including the United States, had served Iceland on the first day of the meeting. Several countries spoke up in support of Italy, including Australia and the United States, which also noted the active Pelly certifications under US law of both Iceland and Norway. AWI’s Sue Fisher called commissioners’ attention to the escalating trade in whale meat between Iceland, Norway and Japan in contravention of the spirit of both the commercial whaling moratorium and the ban on trade in whale products by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

A resolution by Ghana and four other West African nations (Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Republic of Guinea, Benin) on whales and alleviating food security issues was somewhat of an enigma throughout the meeting. After being introduced, it morphed through four versions before being withdrawn by Ghana on the last day for reintroduction at a later meeting. Japan’s proposed Schedule amendment for small-type coastal whaling, which it tried to compare to Greenland’s whaling, would have essentially meant overturning the commercial whaling moratorium. After being supported and rejected by the usual groups, Japan eventually called for a vote, which thankfully failed, with 19 yes, 39 no, and 2 abstentions.

The Downs…
The greatest disappointment for AWI and several NGOs who work on aboriginal subsistence whaling was the passage of a whaling quota for Greenland that was not deserved. The quota request—essentially the same as one rejected in 2012 (see Fall 2012 AWI Quarterly)—was problematic primarily because of the way in which Greenland calculates need, and the increasing commerciality of the hunt, which is antithetical to the true nature of subsistence hunting. After protests from many countries, principally those comprising the Buenos Aires Group from Latin America, a vote was taken and—to our great dismay though not surprise—the amendment achieved the necessary three-fourths majority (46 votes for, 11 against, 3 abstentions). The United States voted as it did two years ago—in favor of the proposal. More than half the votes in favor were cast by European Union countries that collectively opposed the same proposal two years ago. This time, with the involvement of the European Commission, they felt compelled to support the proposal as it came from an EU member state (Denmark, on Greenland’s behalf) and they were under an obligation to vote without breaking ranks.

Unfortunately the South Atlantic Sanctuary Schedule amendment proposal from Brazil, along with Argentina, South Africa, Uruguay, and Gabon, failed after a close vote. After introducing its proposal on the first day, Brazil announced on the last that consensus had not been reached and called for the vote. Needing a three-quarters majority to pass, it fell short, with 40 yes votes, 18 no votes, and 2 abstentions.

Going into the meeting, AWI had been apprehensive about a number of items on the agenda with the potential to loosen restrictions with regard to whaling. Notwithstanding the unfortunate decision on Greenland’s quotas, we are pleased overall with the outcome of IWC65. The Commission has made great strides on civil society participation and we look forward to being even more engaged at IWC66 in 2016.

Can Cetacean Research in Russia Escape Captivity?
AWI’s Dr. Naomi Rose attended the Marine Mammals of the Holarctic International Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, in late September, in an effort to learn about, and network among, Russian scientists and managers involved in the disturbing trade in wild-caught belugas and orcas.

Russia is still under the long shadow of the Soviet era—it’s been more than 20 years since the Iron Curtain lifted, yet some fields, including the marine mammal science field, are still hampered by its influence. Russian dolphinariums have effectively developed in a time bubble—representatives attending the conference reported there are now 30 in the country, virtually all of them 50 years out of date, with makeshift holding pens and heavily chlorinated water. Most mix species from the Arctic (beluga and walrus) with those from temperate water (bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions), while many cetaceans are still caught from the wild (belugas and orcas are legally and illegally taken from the Sea of Okhotsk; bottlenose dolphins are illegally captured from the Black Sea). The quality of the facilities is so poor that they can barely keep their cetaceans alive, let alone get them to successfully reproduce.

Similarly regressive, the dolphinarium industry is still closely intertwined with the marine mammal science community. In the 1940s and 1950s, pioneering cetacean researchers (including in the Soviet Union and the United States) began studying dolphins in what were then newly established entertainment parks that featured dolphin shows. For the first time, living dolphins could be closely observed, allowing new discoveries into their locomotion, echolocation, and intelligence. However, within three decades, cetacean science outside the Soviet system had advanced to the point where it was conducted primarily in the wild, with increasingly sophisticated technology that allowed researchers to enter the cetaceans’ underwater world. Captive research is still conducted around the world, but now it comprises only a small percentage of the peer-reviewed papers produced by the scientific community and only a few active researchers are affiliated with the industry anymore—except in Russia (and perhaps Japan).

Many of the presentations at the conference were from dolphinariums, but these studies were dated. Rather than addressing key conservation questions, these studies were more about observing stimulus-response behavior without context. (This “if I do this, then that happens” type of study was common in the 1960s.) This work would not be accepted in international peer-reviewed journals today, so it typically appears only in Russian publications. In general, even good Russian marine science is published only in Russian, meaning it reaches the relevant managers but not international researchers.

The close relationship of the dolphinarium industry with the marine mammal science community in Russia presents a serious obstacle to reining in the expanding dolphinarium industry and wild capture operations. In many countries, scientists are allies in this fight, publishing research results demonstrating the unsustainability of capture quotas and the welfare impacts on animals. But in Russia, concerned scientists (usually younger and post-Soviet trained) are often discouraged by older, established (Soviet era) researchers from speaking out. For example, solid data supporting lower quotas for beluga and orca removals from the Sea of Okhotsk were presented by two young female researchers and subsequently dismissed and even ridiculed by senior researchers who are closely associated with dolphinariums.

AWI will continue to monitor this situation and work with sympathetic researchers, activists, and students to improve the welfare of Russia’s captive marine mammals.