Are Whales Doomed? -- A Guest Commentary

This week’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the Caribbean island nation of St Kitts and Nevis will once again prove to be a bloody battleground between those for and those against whaling.

This week’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the Caribbean island nation of St Kitts and Nevis will once again prove to be a bloody battleground between those for and those against whaling. The IWC adopted a global moratorium on commercial whaling that became effective in 1986. With this moratorium being challenged, the time may now be upon us to resuscitate the “Save the Whales” campaigns that proved so successful in the 1980s.

Japan, through its 20-year pro-whaling lobbying strategy, is poised to claim “victory” by gaining the majority of votes needed at the IWC to set in course actions to dismantle the rules that protect whales and prepare the way for the eventual full resumption of commercial whaling.

To achieve a simple majority of the 69 IWC member nations, the Japanese government has been actively, and unabashedly, targeting West African countries and small developing island states in the Caribbean and the Pacific to vote in favor of their pro-whaling agenda.

Even with the current whaling moratorium, Japan has been able to continue hunting whales under an IWC loophole that allows for “scientific whaling” by killing whales to allegedly investigate their biology and migratory pathways. This activity is unregulated, scientifically unwarranted, and flagrantly carried out in protected areas, particularly the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary, which WWF helped to establish. “Scientific whaling” is heavily subsidized by the government of Japan and is nothing more than an excuse to kill whales for Japan’s domestic meat market.

Japan is responsible for the killing of more than 700 whales each year, including endangered humpback and sei whales. The IWC has made moves in recent years to address other conservation threats to the world’s whales. But Japan has announced publicly that if it obtains the simple majority, it will immediately move for the removal of all conservation issues from the IWC’s agenda.

WWF has been focusing on the conservation of cetaceans and other marine mammals for over 40 years and has worked for many years to build the conservation agenda of the IWC and its Scientific Committee, recognizing the serious threat of issues beyond whaling and direct take of whales and dolphins. This includes the catching and drowning each year of thousands of whales and dolphins in fishing gear (bycatch), climate change and ship strikes. Bycatch, a top priority of our work around the world, causes the deaths of at least 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises every year — nearly 1,000 each day.

With a pro-whaling majority, WWF is concerned that these threats, all of which have a devastating impact on whale populations, will be dropped from the IWC’s programme of work. A majority pro-whaling bloc could also bring in secret ballots to the IWC for the first time — Japan has asked for this for six years in a row and has been defeated each time. Currently, all votes are open and on public record, something that WWF and conservation-friendly countries in the IWC support in order to ensure transparency and full accountability.

Although the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling is expected to stay in place for now — as it requires a three-quarter majority to be overturned — some predict that if Japan gets a simple majority this year, it will be a just a matter of time before they get the votes to resume full-scale commercial whaling.

In response to a likely shift to the pro-whaling lobby, WWF has been using its global influence to encourage more conservation-minded countries to join the IWC, despite the prohibitively high dues for developing countries to join.

We have also been lobbying developing countries that have voted with Japan in the past to commit to the responsible use of global marine resources and consider the benefits of whales within marine ecosystems, and the economic benefits of whales to coastal communities from activities such as whale-watching. Millions of tourists go whale-watching each year, contributing to tourism revenue that exceeds over US$1 billion.

This will be a decisive meeting of the IWC, one that could decide the fate of the future of whale populations around the world for years to come. If Japan wins the simple majority, perhaps the world will finally wake up. For those countries that have been too apathetic or disinterested in joining the debate, the shock to their citizens may be a decisive factor in bringing them on board. For those countries who are members, the time will soon arrive for their citizens to insist on strong conservation action, not rhetoric.

* Dr Susan Lieberman is Director of WWF’s Global Species Programme.

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