IWC Recap: Efforts to Curtail Whale Conservation Avoided

In September, AWI took part in the 67th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Florianópolis, Brazil. The meeting delivered a series of surprises—not least of which was that Japan failed to secure support for any of its priorities.

Since the Japanese Parliament adopted a new whaling law in 2017, it has been Japan’s official policy to continue so-called “special permit” or “scientific” whaling and seek to resume commercial whaling as soon as possible. To this end, Japan submitted a complicated proposal that would have lifted the IWC’s longstanding global moratorium on commercial whaling and set quotas for whales in Japan’s coastal waters, while also initiating a diplomatic conference to revise the voting rules enshrined in the IWC’s 1946 founding treaty.

Under the treaty, binding decisions require a three-quarters majority vote. The rule change would have allowed IWC decisions on whaling quotas to pass via a simple majority—a threshold that Japan and its allies are close to meeting. The proposal itself, however, needed to secure a three-fourths majority since its effect would have been binding. Ultimately, it fell far short, with Japan securing only 27 yes votes to 41 votes against.

Another positive development was the adoption of several AWI-supported conservation resolutions, including “the Florianópolis Declaration”—a statement of IWC intent to maintain the moratorium and support the conservation of whales. We were particularly involved in the adoption of a resolution that recognizes the valuable ecological services that cetaceans provide to the marine ecosystem. The resolution endorses a workshop to identify additional scientific studies needed to fully understand this role—knowledge that would strengthen arguments for maintaining the whaling ban and for establishing marine protected areas. The IWC also agreed to support new prevention and mitigation measures to address the annual bycatch entanglement deaths of hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in fishing gear.

A significant focus of the meeting was the renewal of aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) quotas for indigenous peoples in the United States, Russia, and Greenland, as well as hunters on the island of Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Following extensive negotiations, the IWC ultimately approved the renewal of existing quotas for the United States and for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as increased catch limits for Greenland and Russia (on the condition that Russia take steps to improve the welfare of its hunt and contribute to efforts to understand the “stinky whale” phenomenon, in which a small proportion of landed gray whales emit a strong chemical odor, rendering them inedible). The IWC also approved rules for the carry-forward of unused ASW quotas and a new provision to allow quotas to renew automatically every six years. AWI strongly opposed many of the new ASW measures, especially the auto-renewal provision, but helped to ensure that it includes conditions that will make it more difficult for Russia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Greenland—whose hunts pose the greatest management, conservation, and welfare concerns—to exploit them.

In the end, what began as a meeting in which cetaceans and their advocates could have lost decades of conservation victories resulted in decisions providing a foundation for future efforts to secure greater protections for whales and their ocean habitat.

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