63rd International Whaling Commission meeting
The 63nd meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) took place 11-14 July 2011 in Jersey, UK.
With no major proposal on the table for the Future of the IWC, IWC63 provides a significant opportunity to bring the IWC up to date with modern standards by improving its transparency and by strengthening its conservation agenda.
In 2010, the IWC was beset with allegations of corruption and vote buying. This year IWC governments have an opportunity to strengthen the IWC's transparency and effectiveness, through a number of measures intended to bring it in line with other international agreements. WWF urges all governments to fully support these measures.
Today, populations of nearly all the great whales are at depressed levels, a legacy of unsustainable commercial whaling during the last two centuries. However whilst commercial whaling remains a concern, in the 21st century other threats may ultimately be exacting a greater toll on the world’s whales.
The marine environment has never before been under such heavy cumulative pressures. Bycatch, pollution, habitat destruction, unsustainable fishing, oil and gas exploration and development, shipping, aquaculture, marine debris and climate change are all taking their toll on cetaceans and their habitats, and in turn, are threatening the local communities that depend on coastal environments for their livelihoods and survival. In order for the IWC to fulfill its purpose “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks”, it must tackle these growing pressures to whales and their habitats.
Oil and gas development
In 2010, the world witnessed one of the worse accidental oil spills in history, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill which occurred in an area of habitat for sperm, blue, fin and sei whales, as well as several dolphin species. BP Deepwater Horizon was a stark reminder of the extreme levels of damage that can be caused by oil and gas exploration and development. The risk of an oil spill in ice filled waters would be even more severe, as oil spill response is far more difficult if not impossible in icy waters.
Even without a spill, the undersea noise generated by oil and gas exploration and development, particularly during exploration phases (e.g. seismic testing) is known to have a severe impact on whales, which rely on sound as their primary sense.
However as sources of cheap and easily accessible oil dwindle and oil prices increase, plans for offshore oil and gas exploration and development are increasing at a rapid rate, including in critical habitat areas for whale and dolphin species. These include several countries which have traditionally taken a strong stance on whale conservation at the IWC.
Western gray whales at risk
The IWC has repeatedly addressed and made recommendations on the conservation of the critically endangered Western North Pacific Gray Whale (WGW), both in terms of bycatch and oil and gas development near its feeding grounds off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East.
WWF is extremely concerned about the impact of industrial activities off Sakhalin Island in the summer of 2010 on WGWs. Such operations are of particular concern so close to the feeding grounds of WGW as the loss of just one or two breeding females each year could cause the population to crash.
The impacts of industrial activities in 2010 have not yet been assessed - the whales are only just now arriving back in their feeding grounds off Sakhalin. However one company operational in the area (Sakhalin Energy, a consortium of Shell, Gazprom, Mitsui and Mitsubishi) have announced plans for a major new development - another offshore oil and gas platform - and plan to start activities related to the new platform this summer. Twenty NGOs have signed a Statement of Concern opposing the third platform, which could have a potentially devastating impact on the whales.
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