Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A dummy’s guide to the IWC

As I mentioned, at the moment I’m at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) scientific committee meeting in Panama. Although I’m sworn to secrecy about what is being discussed in the meeting itself (at least until it’s over), I can tell you about some of the issues that are hot topics.

But first, what the hell is the IWC?   

In 1931, as the result of declining whale stocks, which ultimately threatened the sustainability of the whaling industry, whalers come together and wrote and signed the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. In 1946, this was built on and superseded by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This later treaty allowed for the setting up of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which is currently considered to be the international organization that has authority over multi-and inter-national decisions on whale-related issues.

Bearing in mind that this treaty and organisation was set up by whalers to ensure a sustainable whale-hunting industry, and it was one of the first wildlife resource management treaties written just after the Second World War, the structure of, and language in, the treaty is somewhat dated. However, the IWC was also one of the first international treaty organizations in which science was supposed to play a major role, and specifically set up a scientific committee to provide science (allegedly)-based advice for the management of whales.

 Although the members of the IWC at the beginning were all active whaling countries, at the moment, about half of the nearly IWC member nations are advocates for whaling, whereas slightly over half (a tiny majority) are advocates for whale conservation/ against whaling. I’m a scientific delegate for one of the latter countries. But more about the make-up of the IWC at a later date.

 In the early 1970s, there was a lot of public concern about whales and dolphins, in particular the numerous species that had been brought to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling (there was at one point only an estimated 3000 blue whales left in the world) – in the US the government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and at the same time, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm called for a 10-year ban or moratorium on commercial whaling. However, it took another decade for the IWC to eventually introduce such a ban, which came into effect in 1986, and still stands. However, approximately 30,000 whales have been killed since the ban came into effect, with Norway, Japan, and Iceland having hunted whales despite this commercial whaling ban.

 Norwegian whaling

When the whaling moratorium was enacted, Norway put in a reservation against the ban, which is perfectly legal for countries to do if they don’t want to be bound by one or more tenets of a treaty that they disagree with, although being signed up to the rest of the treaty. Therefore, Norway is not bound by the ban and can legally hunt whales commercially, which they have done since 1993. Recently Norwegian whalers have taken 600-700 Northern minke whales a year completely legally, although in the past few years the Norwegian government has called for an increase in the quota to over 1,000 whales a year.

Japanese “scientific” whaling


Japan eventually signed up to the whaling ban after international political pressure. However, they still hunt whales due to a loophole in the treaty that allows whales to be killed for scientific research. The number and species of whales that can be taken is “as the Contracting Government thinks fit” and so they can basically make up their own quotas.  The treaty calls for the carcasses whales caught in such a way to then be used after scientific samples were taken so that whale products would not be wasted. Effectively, however, this means that after blubber, stomach and some other tissue samples are taken, meat from the whales caught for “scientific research” are sold in markets. So for all intents and purposes this is commercial whaling but avoiding the inconvenience of quotas and controls, but hidden under a veneer of “scientific research”. This is, unsurprisingly highly controversial, and has been heavily criticized by scientists, including the majority of scientists in the IWC’s own scientific committee, with the “research” being criticized as being too simplistic and with major biases, that the sample sizes (the number of whales take) not being scientifically justified being but rather based on whale meat market needs, and also that the data could be gathered by non-lethal methods.

To give the scale of this type of whaling in one recent year (2007) Japan currently took 208 northern minke whales, 100 sei whales, 50 Bryde’s whales and 3 sperm whales in the North Pacific. Although up close to a thousand Antarctic minke whales were also taken in the Southern Ocean, in recent years closer to 500 whales a year have been taken.  From 2008, they also added a small number of endangered fin whales (10) to their hunt in Antarctic.  Between 1986 and 2007, 11,389 whales were taken for “scientific research” by the Japanese government. The hunt in Antarctica is particularly controversial as Antarctic waters were designated as a whale sanctuary (where commercial whaling is banned) by the IWC. But as the Japanese government points out, they are not commercially whaling, they are conducting scientific research …

The Structure of the IWC

There are two parts to the IWC meetings, which are held every year. In the first half of the meeting the Scientific Committee meets. This committee is made up of approximately 400 scientists who are either invited because of their expertise or who are designated by IWC member countries. The number of scientists attending often depends on the location e.g. in Ulsan, South Korea (the Scranton, PA or Trenton, NJ, or Sheffield (UK) of South Korea) there were only about 200 scientists, but when it was held in Sorrento, Italy, nearly 600 scientists felt a need to attend the 2-3 week meeting situated on the coast of the Bay of Naples (and very nice it was too). Over the duration of the scientific committee meeting a report is pulled together, which is normally 300-500 pages long.  This is then summarized. The summary is summarized again (to 20 or so pages) and this second summary is read at the second part of the meeting -  where they effectively  get a summary, of a summary, of a summary.

The second part of the IWC meeting is for the “Commissioners” and their aides. The Commissioners are representatives of the IWC member nations and usually politicians or civil servants, (although some are also scientists). (The dress code changes substantially between the two meetings, going usually from shorts, Hawaiian shirts and sandals, to suits and ties). Depending often on the stance of the particular country toward whales, the Commissioner might be from a fisheries department, or a conservation department. The decisions made by the Commissioners are typically politically in nature, and although the Commission is supposed to base its decision on science, many of the Commissioners are not scientists, don’t get the science, and their statements can be purely political, often illogical, sometimes bemusing, and occasionally insane.

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