From its creation in 1946 until 2012, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) met annually. Having agreed to move to biennial meetings in 2012, it will meet for the 65th time (IWC65) this September in Slovenia. While the decision to meet every two years may save the Commission—and hundreds of participants from around the world—a great deal of money, it has far-reaching implications for cetaceans, and for the work of the IWC.
The IWC Scientific Committee, which continues to meet annually, met this year in May—four months prior to the full IWC plenary session. Previously, the committee met immediately before the IWC meeting, and its long and detailed report was only released publicly at the opening of the IWC’s plenary session. That posed a considerable challenge; not only for those producing the report in a few short days, but also for those needing to brief government delegates and the media on its contents and their implications for issues on the IWC’s agenda.
The new arrangement was a welcome change in many ways. AWI and other animal protection and conservation groups have had time to fully analyze the report and discuss the issues with their national delegations. Most significantly, it has enabled those conservation-minded government delegations to consult with each other and strategize well in advance on how best to produce a strong conservation outcome at the IWC meeting.
The downside of the revised meeting schedule, though, is that the IWC is unable to respond to significant issues arising at Scientific Committee meetings that occur in years when the IWC does not meet. Also, in those IWC off years the Scientific Committee is unable to seek direction from the IWC before the Committee meets again the following year.
This poses a particularly difficult challenge this year. In March 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued its judgment on Australia and New Zealand’s legal challenge of Japan’s “special permit” or “scientific whaling” program in Antarctica (see Spring 2014 AWI Quarterly). In a historic ruling, the ICJ held that the research permits issued by Japan did not fall within the provision in the IWC’s founding treaty that allows whales to be killed for scientific research, and thus violated the IWC’s longstanding moratorium on commercial whaling. Although AWI and others hoped that this resounding rejection of Japan’s so-called scientific whaling program would seal its fate, Japan has vowed to amend the program to address concerns raised by the ICJ, and return its fleet to the Antarctic in late 2015.
Under the current rules, Japan would need to present a new proposal for a special permit for Antarctic whaling to the Scientific Committee by late 2014. Beyond that, the rules provide little guidance. They do not mandate that the committee must accept or reject the proposal; they just state that a review will be conducted. The rules also make no provision for the IWC to act upon any comments from the Scientific Committee—for example, by recommending that Japan amend certain elements of the proposal. Such action by the IWC would seem particularly important to ensure that any new permit actually conforms to the ICJ’s ruling. In any case, the IWC will not meet again until 2016—too late to comment on the proposal and long after the fleet has come and gone.
Conservation-minded governments are considering revisions to these rules to enshrine the ICJ ruling into IWC procedures, hoping to get them adopted at the forthcoming IWC meeting. Although the IWC is supposed to “make every effort” to reach decisions by consensus, it may be impossible to avoid voting at the forthcoming meeting since several deeply contentious issues are on the agenda.
Assuming that the revisions are not adopted by consensus, their success will depend entirely on the make-up of the IWC in Slovenia. A simple majority of voting members will be required to endorse the new rules, but it may not be clear until the opening hours of the meeting what the vote count looks like; some countries will not attend, while others will be unable to vote because their membership fees have lapsed or the credentials of their representatives are not in order.
After Japan’s whaling, the most divisive issue for IWC65 is Greenland’s proposal for a renewed Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) quota. In 1982, when the IWC banned whaling for commercial purposes on all great whale species, it created a new framework for the management of aboriginal whaling for nutritional and cultural subsistence by indigenous people, including the Inupiat of Alaska, the Chukotka of Russia, the Inuit of Greenland, and the inhabitants of the island of Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The ASW quotas issued by the IWC are renewed every six years. Although the other ASW quotas were re-authorized until 2018 at the last IWC meeting, the IWC rejected Greenland’s proposal amid concerns that it was too commercial in nature to comply with the IWC’s rules for ASW, that Greenland had failed—not for the first time—to adequately document its claimed needs, and that its request was for a quota increase. Unlike the other hunts, which seek quotas for a specific number of whales, Greenland seeks a tonnage of whale meat first, and then converts this into a number of whales from four species—minke, bowhead, fin and humpback. In 2012, Greenland claimed that its previous ASW tonnage quota of whale meat was inadequate, and sought an additional humpback whale and more fin whales.
AWI and other NGOs counter Greenland’s arguments by pointing out significant problems with its methodology for calculating need. AWI has identified several recent academic studies (ignored in Greenland’s need statement) that document large declines in whale meat consumption in Greenland over recent decades, along with significant demographic changes—including migration from remote settlements into towns where alternative food, including other species hunted in Greenland, are available. Our key concern remains that, while whale meat may still be needed for nutritional subsistence by up to 10,000 people living in Greenland’s most remote coastal settlements, the government is using the entire Greenlandic population of more than 56,000 people (including almost 7,000 who were born outside Greenland) to calculate a per capita need that, when added together, amounts to 796 tons of whale meat a year for the entire populace.
While the residents of the capital, Nuuk, and other towns may have a cultural tradition of eating whale meat, and might welcome the opportunity to buy it shrink-wrapped in a local supermarket, they cannot reasonably claim to have a nutritional subsistence need. Nor can such a claim be made by the numerous tourists who visit Greenland every year and find whale meat on sale in 77 percent of its restaurants and hotels—as AWI and Whale and Dolphin Conservation determined during surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012. Such commercial sales to tourists and other non-native people of whale meat intended for subsistence use strongly suggests that Greenland has a surplus, not a deficit, of whale meat and does not need an increased quota of whales.
Having hunted—many believe illegally—without an IWC quota in 2013 and 2014, Greenland (via IWC member Denmark, of which Greenland is a self-rule territory) is seeking approval at IWC65 for quotas from 2014 to 2018. The Danish proposal will need a three-fourths majority to pass if consensus cannot be reached. Denmark’s predicament—it is accountable for Greenland’s illegal whaling on the international stage but has no authority to regulate it at the domestic level—led to its threat to leave the IWC (taking Greenland with it) in 2013 if an agreeable solution could not be found.
It remains to be seen whether such a solution exists; Greenland does not appear willing to address the commercial aspects of its hunt and asserts that selling whale meat to tourists does not conflict with the IWC’s definition of subsistence use. AWI and others maintain that the hunt, as conducted, is too commercial to qualify for an ASW quota.
Another proposal that may not attract consensus, and thus would require a three-fourths majority vote to amend the treaty’s law-making schedule, is a longstanding proposal by Latin American nations and South Africa to establish a South Atlantic whale sanctuary. The proposal has failed to secure enough votes at past meetings because Japan and its allies consistently reject any attempts to impose additional layers of protection from whaling, even in areas where whaling is absent. Sadly, early tallies of dues-paying, pro-whaling countries seem to indicate that this proposal will be blocked again.
We are also encouraging governments to publicly condemn Iceland’s ongoing whale hunts and its vast exports of whale products to Japan. Since Iceland resumed the commercial hunting of minke and endangered fin whales in defiance of the moratorium in 2006, the IWC has never formally criticized the hunt. Nor has it commented on Iceland’s massive exports of more than 5,400 tons of whale meat in defiance of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora's (CITES) ban on international trade in whale products. Although the United States has imposed two different sets of diplomatic sanctions on Iceland for its whaling and trade (see Fall 2011 and Spring 2014 AWI Quarterly), the directives issued by President Obama have not had an impact; earlier this year the Icelandic government approved a quota of up to 770 fin whales over the next five years, and the 2014 hunting season for fins and the smaller minkes is currently underway in Iceland.
Another issue the Commission has yet to address adequately is the escalation in Norwegian whaling. Since resuming whaling in 1993 under an objection to the moratorium, whalers in Norway have killed more than 10,000 minke whales. The 2014 whaling season in Norway is the most active in years, as government-subsidized marketing programs seem to have increased domestic demand for whale meat, and exports of whale meat and blubber to Japan have resumed. Also of concern is the apparent collusion among the three commercial whaling countries, as evidenced by the fact that a Norwegian company shipped both its own whale products and Icelandic whale blubber to Kyodo Senpaku, the company behind Japan's scientific whaling program.
Troublingly, a resolution proposed by Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Mali calls for IWC65 recognition of the role of whaling in addressing food security issues and poverty alleviation. This resulted from a meeting between Japan and several West African countries. Japan has also proposed a schedule amendment for a resumption of “community” whaling along its coasts. Similar resolutions submitted by Japan in the past have, to date, been rejected by the IWC.
For small cetaceans like dolphins, porpoises and pilot whales, the pro-whaling countries argue that the IWC lacks legal competence to address their conservation, or to consider animal welfare, since neither is explicitly referenced in the treaty. However, conservation-oriented governments and NGOs contend that there are adequate provisions in the treaty, in addition to a long history of decisions made by the IWC, to indicate that a clear legal mandate has evolved. This is particularly evident in the case of animal welfare issues. The United Kingdom is attempting to create a new framework to consolidate decades of work by the IWC to make whaling more humane, as well as the IWC’s more recent efforts to study and mitigate several non-whaling threats to cetaceans, such as vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.
Come September, none of these issues will stand in isolation; governments will make decisions according to individual and regional geo-political affiliations and based on their own priorities. This will impact whether consensus is reached, how IWC members will vote, and whether deals are made. For example, the pro-conservation European Union (EU) countries that belong to the IWC, including key players Germany and the United Kingdom, are increasingly weakened by demands from the European Commission for internal consensus on EU decisions. This is next to impossible to achieve when a major issue on the IWC agenda—a proposal to increase ASW quotas in Greenland—comes from Denmark, one of the EU member states.
Another regional block from Latin America, known as the Buenos Aires Group, has become a powerful force within the IWC in recent years, championing and supporting many cetacean protection and conservation initiatives. Unfortunately, the Buenos Aires Group’s level of engagement on behalf of conservation at the IWC is the exception, not the rule.
As the IWC moves into a biennial meeting cycle, AWI worries that non-whaling governments will pay less attention to whaling-related issues between meetings and be less likely to attend or keep membership fees up to date. If this happens, the IWC risks becoming the whalers’ club that it was in the past, undoing decades of conservation success stories for whales, including the critical commercial whaling moratorium.