IWC governments to decide on future of scientific whaling

Posted on 15 September 2014

New Zealand mounts a challenge to Japan's controversial hunts, which have have killed more than 10,000 whales 
Portoroz, Slovenia – The 89 member countries of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) this week are expected to debate measures to tighten a treaty loophole that has allowed the killing of more than 10,000 whales under the banner of scientific research. The likely-fractious discussions come after a judgment by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in March that declared Japan’s “scientific whaling” programme to be nothing more than a thinly-veiled commercial hunt.

A moratorium against commercial whaling came into force in 1986 as whale populations plummeted toward collapse after decades of industrial-scale whaling. Since then, Japan has exploited a provision in the whaling convention that allows the lethal take of whales “for purposes of scientific research.”

“The ICJ examined Japan’s whaling programme and determined that it was not for the purposes of scientific research and, therefore, illegal under international law. Now it is up to the International Whaling Commission to take action on this issue before Japan resumes whaling next year. Governments have the unique opportunity this week to change the status quo on scientific whaling once and for all,” said Aimée Leslie, head of WWF’s delegation at the IWC meeting.

During its four-day meeting in the coastal town of Portoroz, Slovenia, the commission will be asked to decide on a resolution tabled by New Zealand that incorporates more rigorous standards for scientific permits, as prescribed by the ICJ judgment. At the same time, Japan is preparing to launch a new “scientific whaling” programme.

“Modern research techniques make killing whales in the name of science obsolete,” Leslie said. “The whaling commission is long overdue to adopt reforms that will protect whales from so-called scientific hunts, which are, in reality, a cover for the harvesting of whale meat. We urge the commission to adopt the criteria described in the ICJ judgment in order to put an end to commercial hunts that are disguised as scientific research.”

IWC governments this week will also take up a number of other contentious issues including whether to establish a third whale sanctuary. A coalition of southern hemisphere countries has tried unsuccessfully for 16 years to add an additional layer of protection for whales in the South Atlantic. Sanctuaries already exist in the Indian Ocean and in Southern Ocean around Antarctica. Further, renewal of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary is up for discussion at this year’s IWC meeting.

Survival of the smallest 

Additionally, the commission will focus on measures needed to prevent the extinction of two rare kinds of marine mammals. The vaquita porpoise is the smallest species in the cetacean family, which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Fewer than 100 vaquitas remain in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico, the only place in the world where they are found. The critically endangered species has experienced a steep decline due to entanglements in fishing gear, particularly over the past three years as a result of a new illegal fishery.

Cetaceans must come to the surface to breath and often drown when caught in nets intended for other species. The Maui’s dolphin, found only off New Zealand’s North Island, faces a similar threat. In order to save the last 55 Maui’s, WWF is calling for a gillnet ban across the whole of their known habitat.

“Each year about 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die unnecessarily in fishing nets. Unintended bycatch poses a severe risk to all marine mammals, but for the vaquita and the Maui’s dolphin, governments need to act now to prevent their imminent extinction. We have already lost forever the baiji Yangtze river dolphin; it would be shameful to make the same mistake twice,” Leslie said.

An ocean of threats

Other threats to whales set for discussion at the 65th IWC meeting include collisions with ships, underwater noise, off-shore oil and gas exploration, habitat destruction and pollution. WWF encourages IWC governments to allocate sufficient attention and resources to these serious issues, which have consequences for the survival of whale species, the health of the ocean and the benefits people derive from marine ecosystems.
Governments are set to debate the legitimacy of Japan's whale hunts.
© WWF / Jurgen Freund
The international court ruled that Japan's hunts were commercial for meat.
© WWF / Michael Gunther
Whales in the Arctic
Whales are facing many threats that must be addressed at the IWC.
© 1. NMFS NOAA; 2. IFAW / C. Carlson; 3. NOAA; 4. WWF / Morten Linhard; 5. WWF / Kevin Schafer; 6. WWF / William W Rossiter
So few vaquitas exist that there are next to no photos of them alive.
© Cristian Faezi / Omar Vidal
Only 55 adult Maui's dolphins are left.
© Silvia Scarli