After 24 years of championing a ban on commercial whaling, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) will soon weigh a proposal seeking to resume commercial whaling. The plan would let Japan, Norway and Iceland hunt the ocean giants openly despite a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. In return, whaling nations would agree to reduce their catch “significantly” over 10 years [AFP]. These pro-whaling nations have kept up their hunts either by officially objecting to the moratorium or by insisting that they’re killing whales for scientific research.
The proposal is due to be submitted before the body’s annual meeting in June in Morocco, leading some conservationists to complain that the IWC should “save whales, and not whaling.” The details of the proposal will made public on Earth day–April 22. Calling the withdrawal of the ban “the best chance to fight overfishing of these animals,” U.S Commissioner to the IWC Monica Medina said: “It’s a global problem, and needs global solutions” [Washington Post].
Making its case to pull back the ban, the IWC said that during the last few decades whale populations have substantially rebounded–with bowhead whale populations off Alaska increasing to between 8,200 and 13,500, eastern Pacific gray whale numbers rising to between 21,900 and 32,400 in 1999, and blue whale populations also rising. Conservationists, however, are seething, pointing out that 1,800 to 2,200 whales continue to be killed each year. “It’s great to be showing success, but should we be planting the flag and saying, ‘We’re there’?” asked Howard Rosenbaum, who directs the ocean giants program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We’re not out of the woods yet” [Washington Post].
They say that despite the rise in numbers, several species still struggle to survive. Just 130 or so western Pacific gray whales swim off the coast of Russia now — compared with at least thousands, if not tens of thousands, in the past — and they are still vulnerable to being caught in Japanese fishing nets and offshore energy projects. Even one of the populations that made major gains over the past few decades, the Southern right whale, is experiencing a sudden die-off. Since 2005, researchers have identified 308 dead whales in the waters around Argentina’s Peninsula Valdes, an important calving ground, and 88 percent of the dead were calves less than three months old [Washington Post].
Critics argue that the resumption of commercial whaling would not just endanger future whale populations but would also legitimize behavior by countries like Japan, which many accuse of overfishing the waters of the Southern Ocean sanctuary and which recently won a victory in Doha, Qatar where a proposed ban on the trade of the bluefin tuna was shot down. Norway and Iceland have already disregarded the IWC’s moratorium and have hunted whales commercially.
Australia, meanwhile, has been extremely vocal in its opposition to the proposal, with a spokesman for the Environment Ministry, Greg Hunt, saying it would set too dangerous a precedent. “It is not about protecting whales, it is about a shoddy deal which gives the green light to whaling and is a white flag on plans to end whaling,” he said [Australia Network News]. The United States, while opposed to commercial whaling, said it was waiting to see the final proposal. The proposal needs a three-quarters majority vote to go ahead. A number of IWC nations have yet to declare their position.
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Image: Flickr / ahisgett