IWC Meets in Slovenia on Anniversary of Whaling Moratorium

The 66th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) took place October 20–28, 2016, in Portorož, Slovenia, 70 years after the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was ratified. The goal of this pioneering treaty, negotiated by the leading whaling nations at the close of World War II, was to finally bring order to the unregulated and unsustainable hunting that had characterized global competition for whale oil for almost a century.

Unfortunately, during the first four decades of the ICRW, insufficient political will, poor science, and a lack of enforcement provisions in the treaty kept the IWC from preventing further exploitation of the great whales. The industrial-scale slaughter continued, taking species after species to the brink, and pushing some populations, such as the North Atlantic gray whale, irrevocably over it.

Not until 1982 did the IWC finally vote to stop the madness. In 1986, after a four year phase-out period, a global moratorium on commercial whaling was imposed, to remain in effect until scientific evidence showed that sustainable catch limits could be set and a robust management (and compliance) scheme agreed upon. Thirty years later, the now 88 members of the IWC are still in disagreement about whether and how to regulate commercial whaling. Meanwhile, the moratorium remains in place—fragile, but intact.

Although attention in Portorož centered mostly on the 70th anniversary of the treaty itself, AWI and our allies celebrated the 30 years of the moratorium, hailing it as an important and visionary conservation decision. A number of nations ceased commercial whaling, saving tens if not hundreds of thousands of whales.

Yet, despite its enormously positive effect, the moratorium has never been fully implemented and whales continue to be killed for commercial purposes. Due to provisions in the ICRW that allow governments to lodge objections to decisions they oppose or conduct “special permit” whaling for so-called scientific research, the whales have not enjoyed a single year free from commercial whaling since the moratorium was imposed. Today, Norway, Iceland, and Japan kill over a thousand whales a year and trade the products with each other. To do so, they invoke objections/reservations not only under the IWC, but also under another treaty: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and its ban on international trade in whale products (imposed in deference to the IWC).

For decades, the world’s focus on whaling has been directed at Japan, whose Antarctic hunt takes place in a sanctuary dedicated to protecting whales and is conducted under the spurious guise of scientific research. Iceland’s hunt is controversial too, with its focus on endangered fin whales for the Japanese market. In contrast, Norway’s whaling is almost ignored, even at the IWC; despite the fact that Norwegian whalers kill an average of 576 minke whales a year—currently the highest tally among whaling nations—Norway receives little attention, let alone backlash. AWI seeks to encourage international diplomats to break that silence.

AWI joined German and Swiss nonprofit organizations Pro Wildlife and OceanCare to author a new report for distribution at IWC66, Frozen in Time. The report documents how Norway has quietly become the biggest whaling nation—its step-by-step loosening of national whaling regulations, its defiance of binding rules under the IWC and CITES, and its escalation of trade in whale products, including the government-subsidized development of new food and health products made from whales.

We also brought extensive evidence about trade in thousands of tons of whale meat from Iceland that ends up in restaurants and supermarkets in Japan, but not before the meat transits multiple European ports and passes through vulnerable Arctic waters along Russia’s Northern Sea Route. We were pleased that several delegations at the IWC meeting made strong interventions against Norwegian and Icelandic whaling, and we will continue to build on this momentum with our campaigns to convince seafood retailers in Europe and the United States not to buy fish caught by companies tied to whalers.

All in all, IWC66 was a successful meeting for the whales. Although Japan and its allies blocked a proposal for a sanctuary in the South Atlantic, the IWC approved an enormous program of proactive welfare and conservation work, including a new initiative to mitigate the devastating impacts of bycatch. It also adopted a series of strong resolutions on (1) the review process for whaling under special permit, (2) cetaceans and ecosystem services (recognizing, for example, the importance of whales as repositories of carbon), (3) the critically endangered vaquita, and (4) the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

Two new governance mechanisms were approved—one that will set in motion a long-overdue independent review of the IWC’s governance arrangements and another that will establish a voluntary fund to help ensure that developing countries can participate in the IWC’s meetings as well as its conservation and welfare work. A proposed resolution on food security, a subversive mechanism to help Japan achieve its much-sought-after small type coastal whaling (STCW) quota, was not brought to a vote.

AWI played an active role in each of these successes thanks to a new rule of procedure allowing nongovernmental organizations representing civil society to fully participate in all meetings of the IWC. At every level, our substantive input informed the discussion and improved the text of decisions, including all the resolutions adopted. In the IWC meeting itself, AWI delivered a detailed statement on the limits of the IWC’s obligations to implement the rights of indigenous peoples, and co-authored other interventions on animal welfare, bycatch, strandings, and the conservation of the vaquita, among others. We also gave detailed input on the IWC’s procedures for documenting and responding to infractions. While such involvement has been commonplace for decades at CITES and other international forums, it was ground-breaking for the IWC and a sign that, at 70 years old, it is finally maturing.

The IWC’s next meeting, in 2018, may not be such a positive affair. A convergence of factors, including a new Japanese chair, is expected to deliver a perfect storm that could seriously challenge the IWC’s stability. In addition to a proposal from the host government, Brazil, to finally establish the South Atlantic Sanctuary, other flashpoints will include a suite of requests to renew (and probably increase) subsistence whaling quotas for indigenous peoples, as well as a bid by Japan to “modify” the moratorium by awarding quotas for STCW in the North Pacific. AWI will be there once again, advocating for an end to commercial whaling and fighting to protect whales against a renewed onslaught.