Monday, June 23, 2008

International Whaling Commission Meeting

Whaling is the most controversial Antarctic issue. Although most people and countries around the world consider it a relic of the days when people didn't have electricity and wore corsets, a few nations continue whaling despite public outcry. Whaling is internationally regulated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which is meeting this week in Santiago. The IWC was formed in 1946 in hopes of regulating and thus protecting the supply of whales from continued depletion and probable extinction. Their efforts were unsuccessful, however, and in 1986 the IWC instituted a moratorium on whaling because most species had been so severely depleted.

The moratorium did allow for the "scientific" killing of whales for the purpose of research, and some nations such as Japan and Iceland have exploited this loophole. Critics, including ASOC, believe that "scientific" whaling is unnecessary, since non-lethal research methods are available, and that scientific whalers are merely using the loophole to continue whaling. Another important factor is that whale watching and associated tourist activity generates billions of dollars every year (according to the Australian government), and some nations want to protect this lucrative industry by continuing the ban on whaling. Whales are worth more alive than dead.

Critics, including ASOC, believe that "scientific" whaling is neither scientific nor necessary, since non-lethal research methods are available, and that scientific whalers are merely using the loophole to continue commercial whaling.

At this year's IWC meeting, the possibility of a resumption of commercial whaling is under serious consideration, although no votes will be taking place in Santiago. Instead, a group of nations will be meeting during the next year to consider how to change or reform the IWC. Meanwhile, the debate over the IWC’s ultimate role will continue.

As there is much debate among pro- and anti-whaling groups and nations about the extent to which whale populations have recovered under the moratorium, ASOC urges an expanded research effort by the IWC to to arrange for the preparation of a comprehensive, nonlethal and long-term programme of research to (a) study and monitor the changes in the Southern Ocean ecosystem as they may affect whales and (b) to track the expected recovery of whale populations and the Antarctic ecosystem structure and properties since the moratorium and the designation of the Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary in 1994. This programme should take into account relevant research continuing outside the orbit of the IWC.

While it is the IWC’s duty to monitor the consequences of its own decisions, including the moratorium and the designation of the whale sanctuary, a unique opportunity to do so has been lost by the IWC's failure so far to organize long-term monitoring. The IWC's Scientific Committee now has no accepted estimate even of the approximate number of Southern Hemisphere minke whales. Pro-whaling nations often assert that minke whale populations are healthy enough to withstand increased harvesting, but the data needed to support this assertion is lacking.

Furthermore, ASOC calls for an end to the "scientific" whaling loophole. The research conducted in the Antarctic over the last two decades under this loophole has involved the killing of nearly ten thousand minke whales and 13 fin whales. The majority of the IWC's Scientific Committee, and the Commission itself, have repeatedly said that this "scientific whaling" has contributed little or nothing either to information needed for proper management of any renewed whaling or to scientific knowledge about whales in general. In particular, reviews carried out by the Scientific Committee have shown unequivocally that the JARPA (Japanese Whale Research Program under special permit in the Antarctic) programme has failed to attain any of its originally stated objectives, such as estimation of the natural mortality rate of minke whales and the nature of interactions among baleen whale species.

ASOC is also concerned about pollution of Antarctic waters. It is estimated that between 2005-2006, scientific whalers dumped over 2000 tons of waste material into the Southern Ocean. This type of pollution is expressly prohibited by both the Antarctic Treaty and the MARPOL convention of the International Maritime Organization.

For more information, we invite you to read the information papers ASOC submitted to the IWC.

ASOC would like to know what you think. We encourage you to comment on whales, whaling and the IWC in the comments section below.

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