IWC67: Key Decisions, Fractious Discussions Forecast for Florianopolis

The agenda for the 67th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC67), in Florianopolis, Brazil, in early September, will provide unprecedented opportunities for high-stakes drama and high-level dealmaking. Japan’s recent conduct, for example, suggests it is planning a very aggressive strategy to influence the meeting’s outcome. Its goal is to get the three-decades-old moratorium on commercial whaling lifted. It is threatening to leave the IWC if it fails.

While Japan attempts to turn back time by reversing the commercial whaling moratorium—one of the most significant and consequential decisions ever made by any international body—other countries have pressing priorities of their own. The United States, the Russian Federation, Denmark, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) quotas that expire this year and must be renewed. And the host government, Brazil, is hoping for a symbolic election-year win—the adoption of a massive whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic. Adding an additional element to an already perfect storm of a gathering, the former head and veteran of Japan’s delegation to the IWC, Joji Morishita, will chair the busy five-day meeting.

Proposals to renew ASW quotas, create sanctuaries, or authorize commercial whaling require a three-quarters majority vote to pass and thereby amend the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) Schedule. (The ICRW is the IWC’s founding treaty. The Schedule is an integral part of the treaty that, among other things, sets catch limits.) This means each proposal needs an affirmative vote by 66 of the IWC’s 87 member governments to succeed. The IWC is closely divided between pro- and anti-whaling nations, with the balance favoring the conservation-minded countries for the last several decades, so no proposal can achieve the super-majority it needs without a significant advocacy effort.

Despite Japan’s growing investments in a number of developing countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific—and the concomitant support by those countries for Japan’s position within the IWC—Japan is still far from securing the number of votes needed to overturn the commercial whaling moratorium. The pro-whaling bloc is close, however, to achieving the simple majority needed to adopt resolutions, and it can easily supply a blocking minority against ICRW Schedule amendments. Indeed, Japan and its IWC allies have blocked all previous South Atlantic Sanctuary proposals and, when Japan hosted the IWC meeting in 2002, its faction dramatically prevented the renewal of ASW quotas for native hunters in the United States and Russia. The quotas were reinstated at an emergency intersessional IWC meeting later that year, but the Alaskan whalers continue to fear that Japan will wield its influence over their lives again, which contributes to increasing tensions in the lead up to this meeting.

Although IWC rules require commission chairs to execute their authority impartially, Japan signaled early in Morishita’s two-year tenure (which began in 2016) that it intended to exploit the position at the 2018 meeting. At a 2017 press conference in Tokyo to announce a newly enacted national law that promised to underwrite the cost of Japan’s whaling operations, a senior official warned that “the new Japanese chair will take the opportunity next year to promote debate on a resumption of commercial whaling.” Prime Minister Abe of Japan then announced in early 2018 that “we will pursue all opportunities to resume commercial whaling at the earliest opportunity, including at the IWC Plenary Meeting in September.” In June, Japanese government officials threatened to “consider all options”—including leaving the IWC­—if its proposals for discussion at IWC67 are unsuccessful.

This is an aggressive escalation from recent IWC meetings where Japan has (unsuccessfully) proposed that the IWC keep the whaling ban in place for most stocks but allow hunting on a population of minke whales in its domestic waters. In contrast, this year Japanese officials are pointing to increasing populations of humpback and minke whales in the Antarctic and seeking to resume commercial whaling on “abundant” whale species. Its allies in this bid to return to the days of the commercial slaughter of great whales will likely include Iceland and Norway—whose commercial whalers have expressed interest in hunting North Atlantic humpbacks—and a number of other countries that have been persuaded to join Japan’s entourage.

Furthermore, Japan wants to change the IWC’s rules relating to voting—proposing to establish a special committee that can adopt ICRW Schedule amendments by a simple majority. This would violate the treaty; the ICRW requires Schedule amendments to be adopted by a three-quarters majority and it would take a unanimous vote to alter that rule. Nevertheless, this illustrates Japan’s bellicose intentions—at the very least to disrupt the meeting with arguments about procedural rules, over which its recent commissioner will preside.

Other priorities

Although the various proposals to amend the ICRW Schedule will inevitably dominate the meeting, the IWC has much else to accomplish in five short days of its plenary and the preceding few days of technical meetings.

An important priority for AWI is making progress on efforts to reform governance of the IWC. Signed in 1946, the ICRW is one of the world’s oldest international conservation agreements, and many of the IWC’s practices and procedures are outmoded—such as rules that make scientific and technical meetings confidential. Embargoes on discussions about the size of whale populations or violations of hunting provisions may have been appropriate during the commercial whaling era when countries were seeking competitive advantages over each other, but they make the IWC look anachronistic and insular today, especially compared to more modern treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In an attempt to address such issues, at its last meeting in 2016 the IWC commissioned an independent review of its governance arrangements, explicitly seeking comparisons with equivalent multilateral environmental agreements. The resulting analysis provides a blueprint for the changes to the IWC’s structure and procedures necessary to modernize its operations and functions. At this meeting, the IWC may start adopting some of the reviewers’ initial recommendations, while agreeing to a process for review and potential adoption of more fundamental changes later. AWI and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been actively involved in this process—a result of parallel efforts to enhance the participation of NGOs in the IWC’s work—and look forward to collaborating with governments and the IWC secretariat to advance reforms.

The IWC also has a full conservation agenda to tackle, including an important new initiative to reduce the number of whales who die or are injured as a result of entanglement in fishing gear. There has been widespread acknowledgment within the IWC of the significance of bycatch as a threat to global cetacean populations and as a welfare concern. AWI, as a member of the Bycatch Mitigation Working Group, will be advocating for the IWC to endorse a proposed work plan, so that the group can begin to apply the IWC’s unique knowledge of cetacean science, conservation, and management toward the development of solutions for this global problem, which kills hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins every year.

In addition, there will be discussions about research efforts to better understand—and thereby preserve—the ecosystem functions performed by healthy populations of cetaceans, including mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon and increasing ocean productivity. (See AWI Quarterly, fall 2017.) The IWC is also expected to consider a resolution on anthropogenic ocean noise, a recent topic of discussion at the United Nations Open-Ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea, in which AWI participated.

As the IWC’s vision of itself evolves—from a quota-setting, whaling management regime into a modern conservation agreement capable of tackling the range of threats faced by cetaceans today—its Scientific Committee must change too. That means shifting its focus (and funding) away from determining how many cetaceans can be hunted toward studying what they need to survive in the face of increasing anthropogenic threats, including noise, discarded plastics, and warming seas. It also means empowering the IWC’s Conservation Committee, which has taken on an expanded role and agenda in recent years—without the benefit of a commensurate increase in financial and logistical support.

It is the role of the IWC chair to devise the meeting agenda and determine the time and techniques needed to bring the members to consensus. We expect Chairman Morishita to utilize new procedures agreed to at the last IWC meeting in 2016, including the use of “breakout” groups to negotiate difficult issues, and hope that, like his predecessor, Morishita will include NGOs in these groups. This would ensure transparency and accountability as well as allow the breakout groups to avail themselves of the NGOs’ significant expertise.

Indigenous Whaling

One item that may not find easy consensus is a proposal to renew expiring ASW quotas, which also includes major changes to the IWC’s rules and process for managing such whaling. An ASW working group that met recently in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska, one of 11 Alaskan whaling villages recognized by the IWC, considered ways to streamline the process by which countries document the cultural, nutritional, and subsistence needs of their indigenous whalers. While some changes are sensible, as they would simplify the IWC’s review process, AWI takes issue with the underlying rationale cited for liberalizing the granting of ASW quotas.

At the 2016 meeting, the IWC considered recommendations from a 2015 “expert workshop” focused on the rights of indigenous people. The workshop’s report met with resistance from some NGOs and IWC members, as it oversimplified the legal status of indigenous peoples’ rights; specifically, it did not acknowledge that, while such rights are well established in international law, they are not absolute—that is, they do not exist above and beyond all laws and they do not override the IWC’s fundamental obligations to conserve whales. A subsequent independent legal analysis confirmed that the IWC adequately implements indigenous rights through its existing ASW regime and concluded that it can impose reasonable and objectively justified limits on those rights, such as capping the number of whales that can be killed; requiring documentation of nutritional, cultural, and subsistence needs; and establishing reporting requirements.

In addition to proposing a renewal of all existing ASW quotas (with increases for Russia and Greenland), the ASW countries, led by the United States, are seeking the adoption of a new measure that would allow indigenous hunters to increase the number of whales they can annually strike (hit, but not necessarily kill and land) by carrying forward unused strike allowances from previous quota blocks. While this might not have conservation impacts (since the models used to calculate safe catch limits assume that all whales in the original strike allowance are dead at the end of the quota block), allowing hunters to carry over strikes and thus strike more whales in a single year does have serious welfare implications. Hunters could become less efficient or careful when hunting whales, as there would be additional strikes available to compensate for a lost whale.

The IWC will have to decide whether to authorize a proposal from the United States that would allow some ASW quotas to roll over automatically every six years instead of requiring an affirmative decision of the IWC for reauthorization. AWI believes this proposal is inconsistent with both the ICRW’s provisions for adopting Schedule amendments and the IWC’s rules of procedure.

Greenland is seeking to extend its minke whaling season to allow a year-round hunt and is requesting the lifting of a prohibition on hunting fin whales less than 55 feet long (younger whales, generally). AWI has concerns about both proposals, given Greenland’s persistent underreporting of the length of the fin whales it takes and its known propensity for taking far more female minke whales than males in some areas (3 to 1 since 2004). If hunting extends into periods of the year when there are naturally more females in those areas, an unsustainable number of females could be taken.

AWI will have three experienced representatives at the meeting. It has also secured funding to ensure that several scientists and animal welfare advocates from developing countries can attend. Our key responsibilities are to (1) ensure that delegates are aware of all relevant welfare and conservation information pertaining to each agenda item and (2) brief and coordinate the large community of animal welfare and conservation NGOs—thus helping to ensure the strongest possible defense in the face of perhaps the most forceful attempt in decades to undermine protection of the world’s whales.