Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Can the UN help the IWC clean up its act?

Dr. Sidney Holt is ASOC's representative at meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and has decades of IWC experience. The following guest blog by Dr. Holt, which has also been posted at on the website of the International Whale Protection Organization, discusses a proposal made by Monaco at the annual IWC meeting held in July 2011.

A couple of months ago the delegate of Monaco to a UN Working Group that is reviewing the Law of the Sea - who happens also to be Monaco’s Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) - made an important proposal to the U.N. This was to declare full and permanent protection for all the whales and dolphins (‘cetaceans’) that are designated in legal terms as Highly Migratory Species – which is nearly all of them – when they are swimming in off-shore waters, the ‘high seas’.

That idea appeals to me and I hope it happens. One reason is that the last time the U.N. got involved it forced open some doors to rational action that had long been closed within the IWC. That was in 1972, when the first global gathering on the environment was held in Stockholm, the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE). As a direct result of that, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) called upon the IWC to declare a ten-year moratorium on all commercial whaling; amazingly even Norway voted for that. It took the IWC ten years to get around to declaring the moratorium but it acted immediately on a few other suggestions. One was to hire a proper secretariat, including a scientist – from 1948 to 1973 the IWC was served only by one British civil servant in London, part-time. Other proposals were that much more scientific research be undertaken – that was acted upon but not with much enthusiasm or money – and that catch limits be set annually and separately for each species of whale and each region of the world. The scientists had been pressing for that every year since 1950, to no avail. Most of the whalers, but most stridently the Japanese, said that would be administratively too difficult; their crews were used to the lumpen quota of ‘Blue Whale Units (BWUs). By 1975 separate limits for each species, in each ‘management area’, and for both factory-ship and land-station operations, had been set.

Since the mid-1970s the IWC has been labouring without an agreed definition of what is a whale? The negotiators of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling 1946 (ICRW), to which the IWC owes its existence, forgot that. – they also forgot to define ‘whaling’. They did make a list of the names in the main European languages of the most common species of the big whales, but it was not a part of the Convention and had no legislative status. When the IWC began setting annual catch limits, in 1975/76, the Canadian, Danish and Japanese whalers and their supporters in governments were anxious to avoid catch limits being set for the pilot whales, belugas, beaked whales and narwhals being caught by their nationals; as far as Denmark was concerned that was in The Faroes and Greenland. They grasped the entirely false idea that the list of language names somehow defined a legal whale. The Norwegians tried, but failed, to get on that bandwagon by saying they also had never thought of minke whales as ‘real’ whales. But Latin American members of the IWC did jump on it, for entirely different reasons: they were then fighting for recognition of their highly controversial claims of national jurisdiction over 200-mile-wide swathes of ocean adjacent to their coasts (which now all nations of course accept) and they said that the smaller cetaceans were all coastal creatures so were under their stewardship and no business of the IWC. That was doubly untrue, first because the ICRW explicitly applies to all waters, coastal or not, and second because the so-called ‘small cetaceans’ are also mostly migratory in the biological sense, if not all so vigorously as the big ones.

Another absurdity in all this is that several of the ‘small cetaceans’ are as big as, or even bigger than, the minke. In fact Japanese ‘small type’ coastal whaling in the Northwest Pacific has long been for two species – the minke and a bottlenose called Baird’s beaked whale. When the 1982 moratorium was applied to the minke they simply increased their catches of the unregulated Baird’s whale. Catches of the closely related bottlenose whale of the North Atlantic are regulated. Norway was present at the 1946 negotiations so that species is named in the ICRW, in Norwegian, English, French etc. Nowegian whalers practically exterminated it, for sale as pet food, to Great Britain. Japan, being a defeated, occupied country was not present in Washington in 1946 so there are no names in Japanese in the infamous Table of Nomenclature, so they were let of the hook as far as their bottlenose and pilot whales were concerned.

This triple nonsense has crippled the IWC for nearly half a century because it is presumed that for its decisions to be valid they can apply only to species for which there is a consensus that they really are ‘whales’. The Monaco suggestion divides, as we say, the sheep from the goats – separating the coastal from the offshore waters. The Latin Americans have nothing to worry about because everyone now accepts the 200-mile limits, and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) already defines almost all cetaceans (except the few truly coastal (and fresh-water) species) as Highly Migratory. In addition, being marine mammals, they are subject to a special regime in which total protection from exploitation can formally be prohibited.

If the Monaco proposal becomes accepted, perhaps embedded in a Resolution of the UNGA, then the IWC might open its eyes and decide to deal sensibly with the conservation of the medium- and small-sized whales. But, as in 1972, there might be other good consequences. The IWC cannot control so-called ‘scientific whaling’; the ICRW specifically and absolutely excludes that and numerous majority resolutions, passed year-after-year criticizing it, have no effect. In fact they have in a way made the situation worse because the tactic of Japan has usually been to make some cosmetic changes to their plans and so give the appearance of taking notice of the concerns of others. Firm action by the U.N. might possibly correct this. Even a compromise in which some whales could be killed for serious scientific reasons by specific consent in each case of the world community of nations, would be much better than the present ‘right’, under the ICRW, for any Government to award to its nationals unlimited ‘scientific’ catches, of any species, anywhere, and not subject to any of the many other existing regulatory provisions such as protection of nursing mothers and their calves, and juveniles.

An increasing number of countries are now opposed to commercial whaling, of any kind, anywhere, as a matter of principle – connected with animal welfare concerns, the perceived ecological roles of the cetaceans in marine ecosystems, the other hazards they now all face (including especially collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gears, contamination by persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals) and the values of whales to humans through whale- watching operations and serious basic scientific research. Those countries might not be entirely satisfied with protection on the high seas, but then we have in the IWC frequently been faced with the problem of the best being the enemy of the good and, anyway, many countries already give full protection to cetaceans in their coastal waters. And an advantage of UN action is that this could open the doors wider for other Agencies of the UN system – such as IMO - to act more effectively to ameliorate those new hazards.

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