IWC leadership needed for whale conservation

Posted on 11 July 2011

As the 63rd meeting of the International Whaling Commission opens, WWF is urging governments to take urgent steps to address the severe threats to whales, dolphins and porpoises from expanding shipping, offshore oil and gas, entanglement in fishing gear, and noise in the oceans.
Jersey, UK – As the 63rd meeting of the International Whaling Commission opens, WWF is urging governments to take urgent steps to address the severe threats to whales, dolphins and porpoises from expanding shipping, offshore oil and gas, entanglement in fishing gear, and noise in the oceans.

The marine environment has never before been under such great pressure, and several whale, dolphin and porpoise species are on the brink of extinction. Possibly fewer than 130 Western North Pacific gray whales remain, yet offshore oil and gas projects near their feeding grounds are expanding ever further. One company is planning to build an oil platform directly adjacent to the most important area for the whales – where mother whales teach their calves to feed. The world’s smallest cetacean, the vaquita, has just 245 animals remaining, due to entanglement in gillnets which prevent the animals from coming to the surface to breath. Entanglement in fishing gear kills 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises each year.

“In the 21st century whales the world’s oceans are in crisis. Oil and gas operations, shipping, and irresponsible fishing are decimating several whale and dolphin species,” said Wendy Elliott, WWF’s Head of Delegation for the IWC meeting. “The IWC must become more effective in dealing with vast number of threats to whales in our oceans and seas. This will be a challenge, but is also an opportunity for the IWC to become a modern and effective body.”

Governments also have an opportunity at this meeting to improve transparency within the IWC, with concrete measures on the table to improve the IWC’s effectiveness.

“Governments must grasp the opportunity to improve the IWC’s effectiveness with both hands – any failure to do so will further relegate the IWC into the past,” Elliott said.

Effectiveness of the IWC

Up for discussion at this week’s meeting is a proposal put forward by the UK government that addresses the effectiveness and transparency of the IWC. The resolution suggests practical ways to tackle difficult issues that have prevented IWC from reaching its full potential. WWF supports the proposed reforms as a first step toward bringing IWC in line with the standards of other international agreements.

IWC and whale conservation

Human-induced threats are becoming increasingly pervasive in our oceans. 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 whales and their habitats, and in turn, are threatening the local communities that depend on coastal environments for their livelihoods and survival.

The IWC has already made considerable progress on cetacean conservation, but more needs to be done to secure the survival of all species. A good place to start would be to increasing funding for the conservation programmes currently underway by IWC and its committees. Governments should also use this week to share intelligence about conservation methods that can be implemented independently in their own waters to reduce the numerous threats facing whales, and to drive the IWC towards addressing important conservation issues such as noise pollution in our oceans.

Smart solutions to ship strikes

Ship strikes are one of the many growing threats to whales across the globe, and can also cause significant damage to vessels and injury to passengers. The IWC Ship Strikes Working Group is examining the problem and suggesting measures to reduce the risk of ships hitting and killing whales, such as speed reductions and alternative route planning. Also in the works through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a mandatory code for ships operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters, known as the Polar Code. WWF encourages governments participating in the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee this week to ensure that effective measures to reduce the risk of ship strikes are included in the Polar Code. The waters around the earth’s poles are two of the most important habitats for cetaceans globally.

Western gray whales on the brink

WWF is extremely concerned about the impact of industrial activities on critically endangered Western North Pacific gray whales in the Russian Far East. Oil and gas operations close to the whales’ feeding grounds are of particular concern as the loss of just one or two breeding females each year could lead to extinction of the population. The impacts of multiple industrial activities that took place last year in the waters around Sakhalin Island are likely to have been severe, yet Sakhalin Energy, a consortium of Shell, Gazprom, Mitsui and Mitsubishi, has announced plans for the development of an additional oil platform. Twenty NGOs have signed a Statement of Concern opposing the platform, which could have a potentially devastating impact on the whales.

The Russian Government took a bold step for Western gray whales by imposing a regulation that will require developers in a new oil exploration block to conduct activities only from late November to late May, when the whales are away from their summer feeding grounds. WWF asks Russia to expand that requirement to all exploration blocks in the vicinity of Western gray whale feeding area, and to reject proposals from Sakhalin Energy for the construction of a new offshore platform. WWF also invites governments of other Western gray whale range states to amplify Russia’s conservation efforts by implementing similar time-space closures for cetacean populations in their own waters where oil and gas operations may occur.

Noisy oceans

Whales use sound as their primary sense to communicate, to find food, find a mate and to avoid predators. Excessive noise in the ocean can impede the ability of whales to conduct these basic tasks and even cause hearing damage. Industrial activities such as shipping, industrial extraction, marine construction or military activities are creating a cacophony of noise that can have a severe impact on the ability of whales to survive. To experience for yourself what it’s like to be a whale in noisy waters visit our new interactive website Don't be a Buckethead.

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.
Antarctic blue whale
© Brownlow/WWF