The Whaling Effect



Posted on 28 April 1999  | 
Barely thirty years ago, Herman Melville's prediction of an early demise for the world's whales seemed ominously close to coming to fruition. Seven of the eleven species of great whales had been decimated, and several - such as the mighty blue whale, the largest creature ever to have lived on this planet - were on the verge of extinction. The International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body responsible for regulating the commercial whaling industry, seemed unable to prevent the devastation. In 1972, the same year the IWC rejected a call from the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment to establish a moratorium on commercial whaling, the Commission set a total quota of over 42,000 whales. As other whale populations dwindled, the whalers began fixing their sights on the minke whale - until then considered too small to be worth hunting. Leviathan, it truly seemed, could no longer endure so remorseless a havoc.

And yet, on the surface at least, the situation would seem to have turned the corner with the worldwide commercial whaling moratorium, finally adopted by the IWC in 1982, in effect since 1986. And since 1994, the entire Southern Ocean has been designated a Whale Sanctuary. Some whale populations - such as gray whales in the eastern Pacific - appear to be recovering.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive. The moratorium has not succeeded in ending commercial whaling: over 19,000 whales have been killed in the thirteen years since it came into effect. And although the numbers killed are far lower than during whaling's heyday, they are increasing once again. The truth is, the IWC is in crisis - helpless to prevent its rules being exploited as the remaining whaling nations seek once more to crank up the size of their operations. Worse, the IWCs crisis is heightened by the threat of rival whaling management bodies being established by whaling nations.

With the passage of the moratorium in 1982, it seemed as if the battle to end commercial whaling had been all but won. Several whaling nations indicated their intention to abide by the moratorium decision. However, other countries subsequently used loopholes in the IWC Convention to continue commercial whaling.

Under the rules of the IWC, a Member State may exempt itself from any decision provided it lodges a formal objection within 90 days. Japan, the Soviet Union and Norway all lodged official objections to the moratorium; although the Soviet Union ended commercial whaling in 1987, Norway has used the objection provision to kill 2,992 minke whales since 1986, including 624 in 1998 alone.

Japan withdrew its objection in 1987. However, the previous year, it began its programme of Ascientific whaling". Article VIII of the IWC Convention grants members the right to Akill, take or treat@ whales for purposes of scientific research; this research does not need to be endorsed by either the Commission or its Scientific Committee, and a country can assign itself as many whales as it wishes.

Japan's Ascientific whaling plan started with an annual catch of around 300 minke whales in the Antarctic. That figure has since been increased to around 400; in addition, since 1995, Japan has also sought to kill up to 100 minkes in the North Pacific, also for Ascientific research".

Despite repeated calls by the Commission for Japan and Norway to halt their whaling , both countries have continued. Because they are using loopholes in the IWC Convention, neither is technically breaking any Commission rules. So while commercial whaling is technically banned worldwide, it is growing rapidly.

At the 1997 IWC meeting, Irelands Commissioner tabled a proposal to bring commercial whaling back under the control of the Commission.

Central to the Irish proposal was that the Commission should formally adopt the Revised Management Procedure (RMP) for baleen whales. The RMP is a new means of calculating commercial catch limits for whales. Far more conservative than previous management procedures, it would allow catch limits only up to 1% of the estimated population. The greater the uncertainty in population estimates, and the more depleted the population, the lower the catch limit.

As a further guarantee, the Commission has agreed that the RMP should only be adopted as part of a broader package called the Revised Management Scheme (RMS). Although details are still being worked out, the RMS would include a rigorous control system, ranging from international inspection on all whaling vessels, to a DNA inventory of all whales killed that can be matched with whale meat that goes on sale. The RMS should, it is hoped, ensure that the past decimation of whale populations would never again be repeated.

To further strengthen the safeguards, and strictly limit the possibility of commercial whaling spreading, under the Irish proposal any future commercial whaling would be restricted to the coastal waters of those countries already whaling, be limited to minke whales , and the meat would only be sold on the domestic market. And crucially, Ascientific whaling would be phased out.

Some environmental organizations have expressed concern that the Irish plan would open the door to resumed commercial whaling worldwide. But that door has already been flung open, and under the present situation, the IWC is powerless to close it again. The Irish initiative, in contrast, would cap the burgeoning commercial whaling industry before it grows totally out of control, and would bring it back under the aegis of the Commission.

It may not be the idealistic solution anticipated in those heady days of 1982. The ideal scenario, for many, would be a complete end to commercial whaling. But the countries and organizations which support that objective have yet to come up with a credible strategy for achieving it. In the realities of a complex world at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it's a goal that is far away and receding into the distance.

Ironically, many of the nations who have spoken most loudly in support of whale protection have yet to speak up in support of the Irish proposal. They seem reluctant to show leadership and to endorse any plan which will officially allow commercial whaling - even though the present strategy of simply standing by the moratorium is allowing more and more whales to be killed each year.

Although the Irish initiative would effectively provide a seal of approval to some coastal whaling, it would ensure that whaling would remain strictly limited and stringently controlled. It would close the door on the aspirations of other countries which may be anticipating taking advantage of the growing anarchy swirling around the IWC. It would reaffirm the authority of the Commission before it is too late. It is, in short, the whales' best hope.

(1178 words)

Kieran Mulvaney is an environmental writer and consultant based in Anchorage, Alaska

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