WWF Opening Statement at the 56th Meeting of the IWC, Sorrento, Italy

Posted on 19 July 2004  | 
WWF offices in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean region welcome the delegates to IWC56 and wish them a stimulating and productive meeting based on mutual understanding and a strong commitment to cetacean conservation.
WWF’s goal is to ensure that viable populations of all cetacean species occupy their historical range, and fulfill their role in maintaining the integrity of ocean ecosystems. WWF acknowledges the widely varied cultural attitudes toward the conservation and management of whales, but continues to oppose commercial whaling until we are convinced that the governments of the world have brought whaling under international control with a precautionary and conservation-based enforceable management and compliance system adhered to by the whaling nations. (Please refer to WWF Position Statement and other documentation for more detailed discussions and recommendations.)
Of the world’s 86 currently recognized species of cetaceans, the 2003 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies six species or populations as Critically Endangered, and at least one of these is in immediate danger of becoming the first cetacean species whose extinction was caused by humans. Another nine are considered Endangered, six are currently listed as Vulnerable, and many local and regional populations are seriously depleted. Of additional conservation concern is that 31 species of cetaceans have yet to be evaluated for IUCN classification, while 24 are considered "data deficient." Many of the latter are small cetaceans that are poorly known on a global scale; these species, as well as large whales, can clearly benefit from IWC involvement.
The IWC has an important contribution to make to the conservation of all cetaceans, but the refusal of some governments to recognize IWC management of small cetaceans is only adding to the many threats faced by whales and dolphins worldwide. WWF urges governments to make the IWC an effective international forum for the conservation of all cetaceans. 
Bycatch: the greatest global threat

A paper presented at the 2003 meeting of the Scientific Committee estimated that more than 300,000 cetaceans are killed annually during fishing operations worldwide. Of the fifteen species or populations classified as Critically Endangered or Endangered, nine are threatened by fisheries bycatch. We are likely to find this list growing in the near future, since some fishing methods and gears, such as pelagic trawl operations and many artisanal fisheries, have yet to be adequately analyzed for their impact on cetacean populations. 
From the standpoint of population conservation, there is no intrinsic difference between bycatch and whaling: both remove animals permanently from the wild population, and both represent a potential threat to the future of many cetacean species. If 300,000 cetaceans were being killed annually in commercial whaling operations, we have little doubt that the current membership of the IWC would take immediate action to bring the situation under control. Our response to bycatch should be no less decisive. WWF urges the Contracting Governments to adhere to existing resolutions on bycatch reduction, and to support additional concrete action by sponsoring a series of research and training workshops in developing nations with high rates of cetacean bycatch. Only through swift and cooperative international action to reduce bycatch will some critically endangered cetacean populations be saved. (For further information, see WWF brochure "Cetacean Bycatch and the IWC.")
WWF also strongly urges the IWC Contracting Governments fishing in the Mediterranean to further support the spirit of the existing bycatch resolutions by adhering to the United Nations ban and EU regulation on driftnet use, and to develop adequate enforcement to stop the use of illegal driftnets.   
The future of western pacific gray whales

Since 2001 the Commission and the Scientific Committee have expressed growing alarm at the critically endangered status of the western Pacific gray whale. The Scientific Committee has repeatedly advised that it is a matter of absolute urgency that every effort is made to eliminate human-caused mortality to this population, which is currently estimated at only about 100 animals. WWF is concerned that large-scale oil and gas development programs by Shell, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Exxon Neftagas Ltd., and British Petroleum near the summer feeding ground of the western gray whale off Sakhalin Island, Russia, pose new threats to the future survival of this population, and risk contaminating the benthic community on which these whales depend. Pollution from drilling muds and cuttings and disturbance from acoustic impacts represent major problems, and there is little doubt that western Pacific gray whales face extinction in the event of a major oil spill in the region.
We encourage all Contracting Governments of the IWC to support continued research and monitoring of this population, and we urge the Russian Federation and funders of the project, including the U.S. Export-Import Bank , European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) to actively pursue all possible actions to eliminate the risk that this development represents.

The 1946 ICRW was negotiated at a time before the broad range of threats to populations of cetaceans were understood, and indeed before some of today’s threats were recognised to exist. In the 57 years since the Convention text was adopted, it has become essential to address significant conservation issues that threaten cetaceans, including bycatch, marine pollution, climate change, ship-strikes and noise pollution. WWF recognises that the ICRW is currently the only international instrument available to formally address all cetaceans and all threats to their continued existence, and considers the newly formed Conservation Committee to be an important tool in ensuring that the IWC fulfils this role effectively.
We regret than some IWC members, most notably the Government of Japan, continue to oppose the creation of this Committee and appear to view at as a threat to the eventual adoption of the Revised Management Scheme. We do not see these two efforts as mutually exclusive, and would remind those opposing governments that the final paragraph of the preamble to the ICRW, so often partially quoted only to defend commercial whaling, states "Having decided to conclude a convention to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry…" With this in mind, WWF hopes that all IWC members, whatever their position on commercial whaling, will support the work of the Conservation Committee.
WWF encourages the Conservation Committee to develop a program of work in close consultation with the Scientific Committee. We continue to view the Scientific Committee, through its stock assessment efforts and status reviews, as the primary body for the identification of conservation problems. We urge the two Committees to work cooperatively to assess the severity of the problems, and the Conservation Committee to build on that effort by developing and recommending an action agenda to the Commission.

WWF encourages the Contracting Governments of the IWC to respect the wishes of range states and support the establishment of additional IWC sanctuaries for whales. WWF considers it unfortunate if whaling nations block such conservation measures by range countries.
Since 2001 WWF has been working along with scientists, other NGOs, regional institutions and governments to secure a network of EEZ whale sanctuaries in the South Pacific region. We applaud the continued efforts of New Zealand and Australia to unite the existing network through submission of a proposal for an IWC South Pacific Sanctuary. WWF also strongly supports the proposal from Brazil and Argentina to establish a sanctuary in the South Atlantic, a region in which whale-watching has been steadily increasing, providing both ecotourism income and research opportunities.

WWF urges the Commission to seriously consider the concerns raised by the Scientific Committee in 2002 and 2003 regarding its inability to provide any advice on safe catch limits for aboriginal subsistence hunting in Greenland. We encourage Denmark and the Home Rule Government of Greenland to carry out the necessary abundance surveys as soon as possible and to develop future catch limits based on the results of those surveys.
WWF is concerned about the nine humpback whales caught in fishing nets in Greenland during the past seven years and subsequently killed for subsistence use. These whales are from a protected stock estimated at only 385 animals, and every effort should be made to release them alive in accordance with Resolution 2001-4. The recent killing of an endangered bowhead whale under similar circumstances is also cause for alarm.

Although the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling does contain a provision that allows governments to issue their own lethal research permits, it was written more than 50 years ago, at a time when no practicable alternatives existed. At that time, killing whales was unfortunately the only way to learn some of the most basic biological information, which was then used in setting catch quotas. In the last 50 years, non-lethal techniques have been developed that provide the data required for management much more efficiently and accurately than can lethal sampling. (For more information, see WWF document "Japanese Scientific Whaling: Irresponsible Science, Irresponsible Whaling.")
WWF regrets that the Governments of Japan and Iceland continue to abuse this provision of the ICRW by conducting commercial whaling under the guise of research. We urge both governments to bring their research efforts into the 21st Century through the use of existing non-lethal techniques, and to refrain from using science as an excuse to bring whale meat into their commercial markets.

We are all aware that there are divergence of views here at the IWC, between whaling countries and their supporters, and non-whaling countries. Rather than stress those differences, we encourage countries to try to find common ground, and work this week for the conservation of whales and other cetaceans. Cetaceans are a shared resource and part of the global commons. The world is watching—to see if the IWC will indeed move forward or backwards. We wish you a productive meeting. 

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