The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is teetering on the brink of a frightful precipice. In June it will decide on a plan to legalize commercial whaling for the first time in over two decades. The proposal, released on April 22, is the culmination of almost three years of closed-door negotiations between a handful of IWC-member countries tasked with developing a solution to a perceived impasse at the IWC.
Since the moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1986, three nations-Japan, Iceland and Norway- have defiantly persisted in whaling by exploiting loopholes in the whaling convention, while systematically generating disquiet and dysfunction within the body. Two decades later their endurance has paid off and the 88-member body is poised to reward their intransigence by legitimizing their whaling. The whaling nations have wholly orchestrated the problems with the IWC and have increased their whaling and trade in whale meat during the negotiation process. They were also involved in developing the current proposal so there is much reason for skepticism over its contents.
The US has been leading the charge to capitulate, with the head of the US delegation to the IWC calling the proposal a means to “bring whaling under international control” because “the moratorium isn’t working.” She couldn’t be more wrong. Before the moratorium took effect, over 43,000 whales were being killed on average every year. Since then the yearly average has plummeted by 97% to 1,456 whales. Further, even if “controlling” such an egregious practice were possible, and one only need look to the recent behavior of certain CITES members to realize how unlikely that is, such a course of action is a poor substitute for working to eliminate it altogether.
The root problems with the IWC lie in its archaic convention which allows countries to “opt” out of decisions they don’t like and so not be bound by them, as well as to kill whales for “scientific research” and sell the meat. The proposal would not address either of these fundamental issues but will: suspend the whaling moratorium, allowing whaling on threatened and endangered populations; allow whaling to continue in a whale sanctuary; and set whaling quotas that are not based on the IWC’s approved precautionary scientific approach.
Fortunately not all countries are as willing to capitulate as is the US. The most vocal opposition to date has come from the UK and Australia, while naturally the whalers are declaring the quotas to be too small. By supporting the legitimization of commercial whaling rather than standing up to the whalers, the US is sanctioning an inherently cruel practice, rewarding three countries for their decades of belligerence, facilitating the revival of a dying industry, and setting a very bad precedent for other international treaties.