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Science & the Public

Whale hunts: Discussions on lifting the ‘ban’

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The International Whaling Commission will formally address its future, next week, at a meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla. Once comprised of whaling nations, the IWC now includes member states just as likely to condemn any hunting of cetaceans. That internal tension is guiding the meeting’s agenda. On it’s plate: whether to overturn the organization’s long-standing moratorium on commercial whaling.

Which is only a partial moratorium, since three of the IWC’s 88 members — Norway, Iceland and Japan — engage in commercial whaling. Or at least what looks to most of the rest of the world like commercial whaling.

IWC chairman Cristian Maquieira, the commissioner from Chile, issued a report earlier this week that lays out a proposed “consensus decision to improve the conservation of whales.” This document is meant to serve as a centerpiece of next week’s discussions.

Without question, the tenor of the document is one that seeks to respect whales and “reduce catch levels significantly.” That last statement, however (appearing on the opening page of the 37-page draft document) points to the schizoid nature of this group. It acknowledges that significant numbers of whales are harvested by some of its member states, even as an ostensible ban on whaling has been in place for a quarter-century.

In his intro to the report, Maquieira observes that “Since the imposition of the commercial whaling moratorium in 1985/86, over 33,000 whales have been killed by whaling . . . over which the IWC has no control. And these takes have been increasing each year” — from roughly 300 a year in 1990 to about 1,800 a year since 2005.

IWC’s internal rules possess such big loopholes that its members can kill nearly 2,000 whales a year without qualifying for any sanctions. Those loopholes come in three varieties.
-- Members were allowed to “object” to IWC’s whaling ban at the time it was first imposed. Several nations did, but only Norway and Iceland (which for a time left the IWC, then returned) have maintained the objections. These allow them to continue to hunt whales, and they do.
-- Member states can also issue reservations on the species covered by the moratorium, which includes all cetaceans listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as being endangered with extinction or threatened with becoming endangered. CITES put all great whales on this list. “Several countries [including Japan] made reservations, so presumably that allows them to engage in commercial trade,” notes Scott Baker, associate director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.
-- Finally, the IWC allows nations to make a case for special permits to conduct “scientific whaling.” In recent years, Japan has obtained special permits to kill more than 1,000 whales annually for “research” — whales that were ultimately sold as meat to restaurants and consumers. Last year, one quarter of the whales that Japan’s “scientific” pursuits hauled out of Antarctic waters — a region that was supposed to be closed to any whaling — were pregnant. A few others were lactating.

There are many promising proposals in the draft document released this week, notes Sue Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group, based in Washington, D.C.

For instance, it calls for international observers — people from nations other than those conducting the whaling — on every major whaling vessel and at every major landing port. And the report proposes that each government “under whose jurisdiction whaling operations are carried out shall have in place a national inspection scheme to ensure compliance with the provisions of the [International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling] and national regulatory measures.”

In addition, all whaling ships must use global positioning system devices that relay to the IWC at all times where they are and must keep records on each whale that is killed or maimed (but lost) — including its apparent gender (and if female, whether it was pregnant), size, age and precise site and date of capture. Tissue samples must be retrieved from all whales killed (including any fetuses), preserved and stored indefinitely. DNA fingerprinting of each sample must be conducted and shared with the IWC for later comparison against surveys of meat that will be conducted in regions where whale meat is sold.

Any whale killing must be “undertaken so that the hunted whale does not experience unnecessary suffering,” the report says. Moreover, the success of each killing method must be reported, as a new move to gauge whether each is as humane as possible.

Finally, a new South Atlantic sanctuary would be established to protect whales there from commercial hunting. It would be an Atlantic corollary to the existing Antarctic sanctuary.

On its face, all of these measures sound good. But the new document also calls for putting all future whaling under IWC control. And that sounds like the categories of exceptions, reservations and special permits will be abandoned, Baker notes. If so, he asks, how can the IWC allow whaling and still argue that it’s enforcing a moratorium on whale hunts?

“I’m worried that there is a lot of devil in the details,” he says, because the IWC does appear to be ready to launch “a return to commercial whaling. Limited commercial whaling. But the question must be: How limited?” Moreover, he asks, how can the IWC allow commercial whaling for some member nations and not all? “At a glance,” he says, this proposal suggests “we seem to be losing ground.”

That’s Lieberman’s concern as well. “You’ve got a subset of countries — not just the three whaling countries, but also their ‘friends’, if you will — who feel the status quo is fine,” she notes. There’s been a move in recent years to try to get some compromise from this group with the result that whaling nations reduce their takes. “The number one issue has been Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic,” she says. The IWC has been exploring whether the world community might have something to offer Japan for giving up Antarctic whaling.

“But what you see in this new proposal," Lieberman says, "is Japan seems to get everything it wants and doesn’t have to give up anything? Where’s the ‘compromise’ in that?” In fact, she worries, the proposal would appear to legitimize Japan’s pillage of the Antarctic sanctuary.

But Maquieira’s intro cautions that this week’s proposal “has been developed on the firm understanding that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. It therefore does not represent, at this time, an agreed approach, but my intention is to use this as the basis for [next week’s discussions in Florida].”

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