Conservation advances at IWC



Posted on 06 July 2012  | 
More than 200,000 Antarctic blue whales used to live in the Southern Ocean – but 20th Century whaling decimated this population and latest estimates put this population at just around 2,300 animals.
More than 200,000 Antarctic blue whales used to live in the Southern Ocean – but 20th Century whaling decimated this population and latest estimates put this population at just around 2,300 animals.
© naturepl.com/Mark Brownlow/WWFEnlarge
Panama CityThe 64th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) closed today with major steps toward the conservation of whales and dolphins, many of which are highly threatened. Meeting in Panama City this week, governments pushed forward initiatives geared at reducing dangerous marine debris and minimizing subsea noise from industrial activities, which can disorient and injure and even kill whales.

“WWF commends IWC member states for joining together to tackle the most critical threats to cetaceans, such as fisheries bycatch, ship strikes, and the expansion of oil and gas development.” said Wendy Elliott, head of WWF’s delegation to the IWC. “As land-based resources are depleted, exploitation of the oceans is growing rapidly. We must not allow another shameful decline of whales from human activities, which were driven to near extinction during the peak years of whaling.”

Warnings from the IWC’s Scientific Committee about the grave state of Mexico’s vaquita porpoise and the Maui’s dolphin in New Zealand generated expressions of deep concern from many countries. The committee recommended that Mexico and New Zealand ban all fishing gillnets from the critically endangered animals’ habitats to prevent entanglement deaths.

New threats

IWC governments also expressed concern over the threat posed by increasing development of off-shore oil and gas projects. The whale-rich Arctic waters off Alaska could see their first ever drilling operations from oil giant Shell as early as this month. Shell admits that technology does not exist to clean up an oil spill in harsh Arctic conditions.

“Considering that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill could not be contained, even in the best of conditions, an Arctic spill would cause an even greater environmental disaster,” said Leigh Henry, Senior Policy Advisor for WWF-US. “At this point in time, the risks from oil and gas operations in the Arctic, including the noise pollution that impacts whales’ ability to survive, outweigh the benefits. Arctic drilling is a short-sighted solution to our long-term energy needs.”

Similarly, in the Russian Far East, oil companies are planning to build new off-shore drilling platforms near the feeding area of critically endangered western gray whales. It was noted by governments that the cumulative impacts of additional platforms have not been studied.

There are only an estimated 150 western gray whales remaining, and the waters off Sakhalin Island are the only place where they can teach their calves to feed. Loud noise pulses used by oil companies in the exploratory phase are known to interfere with whales’ behaviour and could cause western gray whales to abandon their primary feeding habitat.

Monaco’s commissioner cautioned that the expansion of oil and gas exploration is a “dangerous development” taking place worldwide that could seriously interfere with preservation of the marine environment.

Fireworks on IWC floor

The meeting’s most explosive moment came Wednesday when the Republic of Korea shocked delegates by announcing plans to conduct so-called ‘scientific whaling’ of an endangered minke whale population. The move triggered widespread condemnation from conservation groups and world leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The meeting also witnessed debate over a proposal from Monaco for greater engagement of the United Nations in addressing unregulated whaling on the high seas conducted outside IWC’s control. Unable to reach a consensus decision, it was decided that discussions on the topic would continue after the meeting.

Just before close of the gathering, IWC governments decided to shift to bi-annual meetings, although no nation has stepped forward to host the commission in 2014.

More than 200,000 Antarctic blue whales used to live in the Southern Ocean – but 20th Century whaling decimated this population and latest estimates put this population at just around 2,300 animals.
More than 200,000 Antarctic blue whales used to live in the Southern Ocean – but 20th Century whaling decimated this population and latest estimates put this population at just around 2,300 animals.
© naturepl.com/Mark Brownlow/WWF Enlarge
Vaquita porpoises are so rare there are nearly no photos of them. This is an artist's rendering.
Vaquita porpoises are so rare there are nearly no photos of them. This is an artist's rendering.
© WWF / William SHEPARD Enlarge
Fire aboard the mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon, Gulf of Mexico, April 2010.
© United States Coast Guard Enlarge

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