A View from Inside the IWC's Scientific Committee

by Dr. Naomi Rose

For 16 years­—the past two for AWI—Dr. Naomi Rose has been a member of the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) Scientific Committee. She is an invited participant on the sub-committees on whalewatching and environmental concerns, and also participates in discussions in other sub-committees, including those concerned with small cetaceans, human-induced mortalities, and aboriginal subsistence whaling.

The Scientific Committee is the world’s preeminent body for conducting large-whale research and discussing scientific aspects of various issues relating to the conservation of all cetaceans (large and small), including in-depth assessments of populations, genetics, ship strikes and fisheries entanglement, pollution, and numerous other topics. For 64 years, the Scientific Committee meeting was held just before the IWC commissioners met to make their annual decisions related to whaling management and whale conservation, in order to provide these policy-makers with a scientific basis for their deliberations. This meant the Report of the Scientific Committee had to be finalized in less than what inevitably became a very hectic week.

However, in 2013 the IWC began holding its meetings biennially. The Scientific Committee continues to meet every year, for just under two weeks. Now, the report is finalized within two weeks of the Scientific Committee meeting’s end; in the year of an IWC meeting, the Scientific Committee meets several months in advance of the commissioners, to allow the report to be prepared, published, and absorbed under more measured circumstances.

The Scientific Committee is answerable directly to the IWC and develops its agenda from instructions given to it by IWC resolutions and directives. It has a chair and vice-chair and its governing rules are established by the convenors (comprised of the chairs of the various sub-committees and working groups). The rules of procedure for the Scientific Committee stress that its duties should be centered on the “scientific investigation of whales and their environment,” and participants are verbally advised at meetings to avoid politics; unfortunately, despite the important work the Scientific Committee undertakes, politics permeates everything it does. The members of the Scientific Committee are divided by their views on whaling as profoundly as the policy-makers are, making the discussions within the Scientific Committee often as contentious as those among the commissioners.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two bodies in this regard is how they make decisions. The IWC votes; a three-quarters majority is required to amend the treaty and a simple majority is required to adopt resolutions. This has resulted in gridlock for years on many issues, as the anti-whaling and pro-whaling factions have close to equal representation, with neither side commanding the necessary votes to break the logjam. Resolutions are passed more often (usually in favor of whale conservation rather than whaling), but do not have the force of treaty provisions, although such resolutions often provide direction to the Scientific Committee.

However, within the Scientific Committee, consensus is the order of the day. Votes are vanishingly rare, even for the positions of chair and vice-chair. When consensus is not possible (which occurs often when it comes to the scientific aspects of managing whaling itself, including developing the statistical tools for generating hunt quotas), the discussion is reflected in the report as “some” said this while “others” said that.

Votes are not prohibited within the Scientific Committee; they are simply avoided because science generally does not operate by majority rule. It operates on evidence and when a persistent but minority element within a scientific body disagrees on the evidence, science tends to report the degree of the majority, rather than vote the minority down (for example, science publications will say that “97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is primarily attributable to human activity,” rather than simply “climate science says… ”). While understandable and even laudable, this aspect of science becomes a problem when the science is primarily conducted to inform policy, and a reporting body (such as the media or, as here, the Scientific Committee itself) avoids specifying the percentage of members within those “some” and “other” factions.

As a result, the whaling nations can point to the fact that some members of the Scientific Committee support the need for lethal sampling of whales to conduct certain research. In fact, a large majority of scientists, including Scientific Committee members, do not believe lethal sampling is needed to achieve any research objectives. The global norm in science is not to sample lethally unless the research is essential to achieve an important goal, such as recovery of an endangered species, and there is absolutely no other way to acquire the data. However, the magnitude of disagreement regarding lethal sampling in scientific whaling programs is not captured by the way the Scientific Committee records its discussions. This frustrating aspect of the Scientific Committee’s deliberations on so-called scientific whaling unfortunately overshadows the good work it so often produces in other sub-committees and working groups focused more on whale conservation than whale killing.

Because the Scientific Committee exists to serve a management body, it emphasizes within its report wherever there is consensus (it “agrees”), it offers management advice (it “recommends”), or it feels, from a scientific perspective, that a particular conservation threat is being inadequately managed (it “expresses grave concern”). These words, among a few others in a similar vein, are in bold throughout the report, to guide the commissioners in their deliberations. Notably, some of the Scientific Committee’s recommendations, particularly within the sub-committees addressing whalewatching, environmental concern, small cetaceans, and human-induced mortalities, have proven valuable outside of the IWC context, when urging governments to increase environmental or species protections.

What the IWC Scientific Committee says and does is important to the global conservation and protection of the world’s cetaceans. However, groups like AWI must mine the Scientific Committee report for these consensus recommendations (agreed to even by the world’s whalers) and use them effectively in their campaigns, whether those campaigns seek to protect cetaceans from human noise, uncontrolled whalewatching, chemical pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, or ship strikes. The Scientific Committee and its work have value not just to the IWC and the management of whaling; increasingly, the Scientific Committee is working to address threats to the survival of cetaceans, beyond the context of whaling. It is up to AWI and groups like it to maximize the impact of this good work.