To determine the future of the IWC, we must look to the past, present, and to the future. The past offers an alarming picture of greed, ignorance, and/or fear decimating entire populations of terrestrial and marine wild species, including the great cetaceans. Our greed, ignorance, vanity, and callousness have already cost us too many species. The passenger pigeon, Stellar’s sea cow, Guam flying fox, and Arabian gazelle all gone forever. Others, like the black crested gibbon, Great Indian bustard, Mexican wolf, and saiga antelope, remain on the brink of extinction with small populations and shrinking range. Still, others miraculously survived man’s exploitation only to be now forced to live in an altered landscape, subject to artificial boundaries, and, too frequently, lethal management. Africa’s elephants are being forced to occupy an ever shrinking range as human populations expand and usurp the tusker’s habitat. Gray wolves and grizzly bears are claimed, by some, to represent conservation success stories though they are forced, within much of their range, to live within parameters set by human fear and tolerance, or lack thereof. The once vast herds of North American plains bison only survived the onslaught of greed and political persecution because a few hundred found sanctuary in what once was the remote valleys of Yellowstone National Park.
Most of the great whales also survived an unimaginable slaughter at the hands of governments and whaling companies whose greed was seemingly insatiable and whose ignorance of their destructive acts was apparently limitless. Not all survived. The North Atlantic gray whale is now extinct, never again to be seen. Remarkably considering the scope of the slaughter, some cetacean populations, like plains bison, barely survived but have yet to recover to anywhere near their pre-commercial exploitation sizes. Indeed, no great whale population, including the Eastern North Pacific gray whale, has fully recovered and, given increasing threats to the whales and their habitats, it’s unclear if any ever will.
While the massive commercial slaughter of great whales has become, thankfully, a tragic but real historical fact that must never be repeated, modern threats are of equal, if not, greater concern. Modern commercial whaling continues with many whales killed under the banner of so-called “scientific research.” Few are deceived by labels of such dubious validity and most agree that whales no longer must be killed for study or to facilitate their management.
While some native peoples have legitimate subsistence needs for whale products, those countries who continue to whale commercially for food have no legitimate reason to do so given the availability of others foods and a consistently declining demand for whale products. Unfortunately, the present day threats to cetaceans are not limited to commercial whaling, whether disguised as “science” or not. Indeed, modern threats are ubiquitous and expanding. Coastal development, ship strikes, pollution, net entanglements, other forms of bycatch, ocean noise, and harassment are some of the more commonly noted threats which are, directly and indirectly, adversely impacting every cetacean population or stock around the globe.
Though some efforts are being made to address these threats, global climate change continues to be the proverbial elephant in the room. While the climate change naysayers will always exist, there is no longer any credible debate that climate change is not real, that it is happening now, and that it is already impacting species, ecosystems, and human societies throughout the world. Cetaceans are not immune from such impacts and, indeed, they and their habitats are already feeling the effects of our warming world. While our understanding of the complexities of even the simplest ecosystems remains beyond our grasp, based on what we do know, ecosystems from the Southern Ocean to the Arctic are changing. Cetaceans will have to adapt or die.
Given this backdrop, the future of the IWC must not continue to dwell on the minutiae of small type coastal whaling, special permit whaling, or commercial whaling. Instead, it’s time to permanently end such anachronistic practices, permitted or not, as they are not necessary, are globally opposed, and inherently cruel. This is not to downplay the significance of these issues for any particular country or to the IWC itself, but, frankly, it is beyond time to move on. To continue to delay what is a needed seismic shift within the IWC, particularly among the remaining whaling nations, is to continue to add nails into cetacean coffin.
Admittedly, whaling nations are reluctant to agree to such a substantive change for any number of reasons, most , if not all, of which cannot withstand even minimal scrutiny. While the reasons for continuing to whale remain unclear, what is clear is that a return to large scale regulated commercial whaling will not happen, that “scientific” whaling has provided no legitimate information that cannot be answered without killing whales, and that anthropogenic threats to cetaceans are severe and worsening.
Therefore, we respectfully call on those nations engaged in commercial whaling to voluntarily terminate their whaling activities as a generous gift to the world, to the whales, and to the future. This must not be publicized, by anyone, as a capitulation to the persistent demands of anti-whaling government’s or organizations but, should be trumpeted as an enlightened and progressive act of compassion intended to eliminate at least one factor contributing to the cumulative global impacts to cetaceans. Though, such an announcement is not expected at IWC 61, we would hope it is not too far away.
For the past year, many governments have spent large sums of money, vast amounts of time, and emitted significant quantities of carbon in search of a compromise to prevent the collapse of the IWC. We question this fundamental underpinning of the Small Working Group believing, with certainty that its origins are elsewhere. The Animal Welfare Institute, like many other non-governmental organizations, has consistently opposed the continuation of the Small Working Group as it believes the process will not result in a solution but only further delay. It will not result in answers but only more questions. And it will not benefit whales or their habitat but will only delay this august body from reinventing and redirecting itself to grapple, scientifically and politically, with the far more dangerous global threats to whales and their habitats.
If the Small Working Group process is to continue, perhaps it can help bring us to a day when the whaling nations announce their decision to forego a future of whaling and embrace a future for whales. This will not be accomplished by enabling countries to blatantly misinterpret the intent of Article VIII, using Article V to avoid compliance with the will of the Commission, propping up what is a dying industry, or giving credence to “science” that is neither necessary nor credible. Rather, we encourage those who continue to participate in the Small Working Group process to remember the past when the great whales were relentlessly and brutally slaughtered, consider the present when cetacean populations are suffering as anthropogenic stressors redefine entire ecosystems , and contemplate the future when those stressors expand and the full impacts of climate change – impacts that we do not yet even fully understand -- decimate our oceans and the myriad species that call the ocean home. This, of course, includes the great whales that are of such significant value to so many people, including native peoples, around the world.
Some may believe that whales are special or unique and thus deserving of protections not afforded to other species. We don’t. Whales are special and unique but not more or less so than other species with whom we share this world. So then, why provide complete protection to whales from commercial and “scientific” whaling? Simple, why not? The fact that other wildlife species are subject to killing, legally or illegally, does not justify the continuation of whaling but, rather, indicates that even when the whales are protected our work is not done and that other species also need protections if we are to create a more humane and compassionate world. We have not been responsible stewards of this planet so let’s start by protecting the world’s whales and see where that leads.