Successes and failures of the International Whaling Commission (IWC)

For the first 15 years of its existence the IWC acted as a “whalers club” and imposed hardly any effective restrictions on whaling. Catch limits were set far too high and, since the IWC lacks a compliance and enforcement programme, were often exceeded.
These management shortfalls resulted in the continued depletion of species after species. In particular, huge declines occurred in the Antarctic, where in the 1961/62 season, the peak was reached with over 66,000 whales killed. By then however it was becoming increasingly hard for the whalers to find enough whales to kill. From a pre-whaling population of about 250,000 blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere, there are now estimated to around 2,300 remaining.

'Save the whales' campaigns
Also in 1961, WWF was founded and accepted the challenge of reversing the declines in whale populations. 'Save the whales' campaigns spread around the world, promoting calls for whale sanctuaries and a moratorium on commercial whaling (most notably by the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972).

Continous decline in whale populations
Instead of implementing a moratorium, in 1974 the IWC adopted a New Management Procedure (NMP), designed to set quotas on the grounds of scientific assessments and sustainability. However, the NMP was not precautionary at all; it depended on having much more information on whale stocks than was available, quotas were still set too high, compliance was still lacking, and whale populations continued to decline.

Misleading information from some member states
At the 1979 IWC meeting, a moratorium on all whaling using factory ships (with an exception for minke whales) was agreed. The IWC also declared the entire Indian Ocean as a whale sanctuary. From then on, successful non-lethal whale research took place in that area (some of it funded by WWF).

However, it was also revealed that the USSR had been falsifying reported numbers and species were being caught on a massive scale, with the meat being sold to Japan. Conservation concerns expressed by scientists, WWF and other conservation organizations and conservation-minded governments grew deeper.

1982 meeting - moratorium on all commercial whaling
At the 1982 IWC meeting, a proposal for a moratorium on all commercial whaling, to come into force in 1986, was tabled by the Seychelles. The vote was comfortably won with a majority of 25 to 7, with 5 abstentions. Japan, Norway, and the USSR subsequently lodged official objections giving them exemption from the moratorium, but Japan withdrew its reservation as of the 1987/88 season. Iceland did not lodge an objection to the moratorium at the time it was established, but left the IWC in 1992, re-adhering to the ICRW with a reservation to the commercial whaling moratorium in 2002.

Because of the problems with the New Management Procedure, the IWC asked its Scientific Committee to produce a fail-safe management system that could ensure that any future commercial whaling would never again deplete whale stocks. In 1994, the Revised Management Procedure (RMP), a set of precautionary rules for setting catch limits, was agreed by IWC Resolution, although not formally adopted into the IWC ‘Schedule’, or rules of operation.

The RMP is designed as one part of a Revised Management Scheme (RMS) which would also include rules for conducting surveys of whale numbers and for the inspection and observation of commercial whaling. Continued controversy regarding the need for additional safeguards that would prevent any repetition of past abuses has so far prevented the adoption of the RMS.

Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary established
In 1994, after an intensive campaign by WWF and other NGOs, the 50 million square km. Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary came into force. In the long term this should ensure the recovery of the world’s whale populations that have suffered most from exploitation. However, although several countries initiated non-lethal research in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, Japan is still conducting lethal so-called "scientific" whaling within the boundaries of the Sanctuary, as well as in the North Pacific.
 / ©: WWF UK / David SOUTHERN
© WWF UK / David SOUTHERN

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