Wednesday, August 10, 2011

There’s Science, and then there’s Science.

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, gives background on the how the IWC's Scientific Committee operates.

In my previous post I described the role of the United Nations in 1972 in forcing slightly open the International Whaling Commission, facilitating the IWC’s shift to regulating commercial whaling on a species by species, population by population basis, as its scientists had long asked. But few scientists liked the idea of a moratorium. This was ostensibly because they said that data from whaling operations were necessary for making assessments and drawing conclusions about the states of the whale ‘stocks’. Some also argued that if there were to be closures, short- or long-term, they should be set up as ‘experiments’ allowing comparison of what happened in the closed areas with what happened where whaling continued. Many found it difficult to think of such a move as a conservation measure rather than as a sort of scientific game.We heard exactly the same arguments when sanctuaries were being discussed and when the actual moratorium of 1982 debated. It was not until the 1990s, during the IWC Scientific Committee’s (SC’s) development of a Revised Management Procedure (RMS) that it was eventually generally accepted that data from commercial operations had little scientific value.

The SC’s reactionary position was not unexpected. After all it is composed of scientists nominated by member governments and generally beholden to them. Exceptional individuals have stood out against the compliant majority and sometimes taken leading elected positions in the Committee. There come to mind the eminent Norwegian biologist Professor Johan Ruud who chaired the SC during the 1960s (and had the courage to resign when his government acted against a prior commitment to abide by scientific advice in setting precautionary catch limits), and Douglas Chapman, professor of mathematics at the University of Washington, who led the Committee in the 1970s. A step was taken in depoliticizing the SC when it agreed to invite the participation of some independent scientists, provided they took no direct part in formulating management advice to the Commission. That did not completely depoliticise the SC because the ‘independents’ were selected by the Committee’s officers that are appointed by the national delegations, in a sort of parody of democracy.

When we in the Seychelles’ delegation presented, in 1982, our proposal for an indefinite commercial moratorium, beginning in 1986, we softened the pill of indefiniteness by providing for a review of the decision by 1990 at the latest, and for a comprehensive assessment of the effects of the moratorium decision. Not surprisingly the SC was quite unable to determine what if any changes had occurred as a result of the moratorium only four years after it came into effect. But the provision had not been a stupid one; as the records of the 1982 debate show. The intention had been not so much to attempt the impossible, of detecting recoveries of whale populations, but rather of assessing the consequences of the pause in whaling for human communities, industry and commerce in the whaling countries. In 1982 not only were ‘the usual suspects’ engaged in commercial whaling – Japan, Norway, Iceland, but also many others: Spain, Peru, Chile, Brazil, USSR, Republic of Korea, all serving Japan’s meat market.. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and China had ceased whaling only a few years earlier.

What was clear, however, was that there should be a long-term programme of scientific research to monitor and try to understand the recovery of the devastated Southern Ocean ecosystem whose whales had now been placed under protection. Nothing of that kind was ever attempted. Instead a perversion of the ‘comprehensive assessment’ idea was invented by the delegation of Japan and nurtured by the IWC Secretariat. The assessments were to be little more than a re-examination of the old data, mainly from the whaling operations, species by species, area by area, putative population by population, employing computers and some new methods of analysis. Much more important was the launching of efforts to count minke whales in the Antarctic and North Pacific by the conduct of systematic visual sightings surveys, mostly paid for by the Government of Japan, in addition to its conduct of ‘scientific’ exploitation of the same species. The reason for the focus on the minke whale was only because that is the species that Japan’s whalers still wanted to ‘mine’ - sorry, ‘harvest’. Of course, it is inevitable that a few whales of other species such as fin, blue and sei whales will be seen during such dedicated surveys and a few scientists have tried to use those few sightings to estimate the numbers of those species, but such estimates still do not reveal rates of population increase – a very few of those have come from other, independent studies, such as they exist – but the focus and research effort, both in the field and concerning methodology has remained 95% on the minke whales. Notwithstanding those efforts there is still no agreement among the SC members so engaged, after thirty years of study, on how many minke whales feed in various sectors of the Antarctic, and huge discrepancies remain between different methods of data-processing What we do know is that the numbers appear to have decreased, but we do not know how or why.

A few years ago Australian scientists, with the support of their Government, launched a research coalition aimed at getting back to serious research on what is going on in the ocean ‘down there’. This year, in Jersey, a special project to study the dynamics of the blue whales in the Antarctic was kicked off – also by Australia. Meanwhile, in addition to the fuss about how many minke whales might be available for slaughter by Japanese gunners, the SC is deeply engaged in studies of how the Commission’s precautionary RMP - completed and approved a decade ago but never implemented – can now be ‘amended’ in such a way as to provide bigger immediate catches if and when regulated commercial whaling is resumed, even if that means – inevitably – an increased risk of accidental depletion of whales at some time during a prolonged management period. Norwegian scientists take the lead in that particular enterprise, because the minke whalers in their Arctic region would like to be allowed by their Government to kill more, even though they haven’t been able to sell all the meat from what they have been catching (Norway conducts minke whaling under its ‘objection’ to the zero catch limit that was enacted in 1985 - that is, before the moratorium came into force – because of the finding by the SC at that time, accepted by the Commission by a three-fourths majority vote that the minke population in the Northeast Atlantic was depleted.)

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) of NGOs, that I have been representing for a few years in IWC meetings, as an Observer, has repeatedly called for the IWC to make a comprehensive management plan for the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary designated in 1994. So far those pleas have been ignored by the Commission but the new Australian research initiatives might encourage interest in the idea. Personally I think it could be time for SC to set its sights a bit higher, to encompass research on and conservation of the baleen and sperm whales of the Southern Hemisphere when they are in their feeding grounds and on their breeding grounds.

The huge baleen whales were once, not so long ago – a century, a healthy whale’s lifetime - the biggest biological movers of nutrients (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, iron and other essential trace elements) between the polar and the temperate and tropical ocean zones of the entire Southern Hemisphere. More about that next time.

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