Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. V No. 3 July 1996


The 1996 International Whaling Commission Meeting

By Kate O'Connell, CSI Board


The 1996 International Whaling Commission (IWC) Annual Meeting was held in Aberdeen, Scotland from the 24th through the 28th of June. The meeting, coming ten years after the Commission's ban on commercial whaling came into full effect, could and should have been a reaffirmation of support for the global community's call to end whaling. Unfortunately, what took place called into question the ability of the IWC to enforce its decisions. Whaling, it is clear, is far from over.

Cetacean Society International's Scientific Advisor, Dr. Carole Carlson, served as the group's observer to the meeting. Carole also played a key role as a member of the US delegation to the Scientific Committee, brought in specifically to discuss the issue of whale watching. As one of the more positive aspects of the 1996 meeting, a resolution was passed concerning whale watching that calls on the Commission to consider that the IWC has a role to play in monitoring and providing guidance on the development of whale watch activities world-wide.

The resolution, supported by 15 countries and passed by consensus, also urges that educational, economic and social aspects of whale watching be further discussed by the Commission. Those CSI members who can recall Director Emeritus Robbins Barstow's call to the IWC to consider whale watching should feel proud that this issue has now been taken up in the deliberations of the IWC. Hopes are that one day the Commission will recognize that the benefits of non-consumptive uses of whales, such as whale watching, far outweigh any that can be brought by whaling activities.

Another positive note can be found in a resolution, again passed by consensus, on the issue of small cetaceans. CSI has long maintained the need to provide protection for dolphins and porpoises, and as our members are aware, we have consistently supported, in a small but vital way, research on issues of small cetacean deaths due to entanglement in fishing gear as well as in directed takes. The Society has lobbied the Commission to consider small cetacean takes, and in 1995 offered to support the creation of a fund to help provide monies for researchers in economically restricted countries.

The small cetacean resolution accepted at the 1996 meeting keeps the issue of small cetaceans on the agenda of the Scientific Committee, and also asks member governments to provide further information on such kills as the Japanese take of Dall's porpoise and striped dolphins, the issue of harbour porpoise takes in several range states (including the US, UK, Ireland and Denmark), and the vaquita and baiji, the two most highly endangered small cetaceans in the world. As an example as to why CSI is so concerned about these dolphins and porpoises, according to the 1996 Small Cetacean Subcommittee report, 12,396 Dall's porpoise were killed in a direct hunt by the Japanese in 1995, and over 8,000 harbor porpoise were estimated killed in entanglements in fishing gear in 1993.

There was also good news relating to the issue of environmental threats to cetacean populations. Many scientists and conservationists now feel that it is impossible to only consider the effects of directed kills of whales and dolphins on their population levels. As human activities increasingly harm and degrade cetacean habitat, there have been moves to encourage the IWC to tackle the issues of climate change, pollution (both noise and chemical), and interactions with fisheries. The resolution passed at this year's meeting on the issue of environmental change and cetaceans calls on the IWC's Scientific Committee to address these issues, and also urges the development of non-lethal research techniques to assess the impact of environmental change on cetaceans.

A few months in advance of the Aberdeen meeting, Norwegian whale meat was confiscated by Japanese customs officials after an attempt to smuggle the meat into Japan. This was not the first time that such an attempt has been made, and a resolution to try to restrict or prevent trade in whale meat was passed. The need for such control became even more obvious when details of a three year study by Drs. Scott Baker, Steve Palumbi and Frank Cipriano revealed that meat from endangered whale species could still be found for sale in Japanese and Korean markets. One sample, analyzed by DNA genetic techniques, showed that meat for sale came from either a highly endangered blue whale, or a rare blue/fin hybrid whale.

The most controversial issue raised at this year's IWC meeting was the proposal put forth by the United States government on behalf of the Makah Tribal Council (MTC) to kill five gray whales off the coast of Washington state [see "Whales Alive!", Vol. V No. 1]. Both conservation organizations and conservation-minded countries called on the US to withdraw its proposal, especially given that most felt the proposal did not meet IWC criteria governing hunts for indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, the US went all out to support the MTC's request to kill the five gray whales, tying up the proceedings of the Commission and causing a great deal of bitterness in the process. Tensions escalated, and groups as diverse as World Wildlife Fund and Sea Shepherd requested that the US withdraw the proposal. On the Wednesday of the meeting, June 26th, news filtered back from Washington, DC that an emergency Congressional resolution had been unanimously passed by the House Committee on Resources, asking that the proposal be withdrawn and the gray whale be protected.

CSI played no small role in the debate. Of prime importance in the week's deliberations was the participation of two Makah tribal members. Alberta Thompson and Dotti Chamblin attended the IWC meeting as observers, in order to bear witness to the fact that the tribe's Elders had publicly opposed the hunt and the actions of the Makah Tribal Council. These two women met with most of the delegations to the IWC and talked openly of the fact that the hunt was not overwhelmingly supported by the tribe. Their participation at the IWC was helped by a consortium of groups, among them, Cetacean Society International.

In the face of such intense opposition, the US finally decided to withdraw the petition to kill five gray whales from the 1996 agenda, although the delegation did promise to return to the issue in 1997. Unfortunately, much damage had already been done. Given that the Makah Council's proposal could not meet all of the criteria for aboriginal whaling, the US had been forced to concentrate on the cultural aspects of the hunt alone.

The Japanese were able to turn the US arguments on Makah to their own advantage, and gained a foothold for their own request to take whales for the "cultural and socioeconomic relief" of four whaling communities. The US found itself in the untenable position of being thanked by Japanese whaling interests for the introduction of the Makah whaling proposal. A resolution passed that will convene a workshop on Japanese community-based whaling in the upcoming year, with results to be reported back to the IWC in 1997.

The United States role of opposition to whaling has also come into question with the failure of the Clinton Administration to take any strong action (such as economic sanctions) against the continued whaling activities of Japan and Norway. In the ten years since the commercial whaling moratorium went into full effect in 1986, nearly 19,000 whales have died, the majority through legal loopholes employed by Japan and Norway. Japan has now escalated its so-called research whaling to cover both the Antarctic and the North Pacific, and Norwegians kill minke whales in the North Atlantic with impunity. In spite of resolutions against these hunts, there is little effective action that the IWC can take.

The US, in abdicating its traditional role of support for whale conservation, has helped to ensure that quotas for whaling nations can continue to rise. The proceedings of the Scientific Committee indicate that US scientists have collaborated with Norwegian scientists to develop models that will allow for greater takes of minke whales in the North Atlantic. Instead of siding with scientists who promote a more precautionary look at whale science, our tax dollars have been spent to ensure that Norwegian whaling can continue...and even grow.

On balance, while there were some victories at this year's IWC meeting, it is clear that whales have not been saved. Indeed, they are facing increasing perils from pollution, from interactions with fishing industries, from the whaling nations of Japan and Norway, and most sadly, from the United States government and its failure to act against whaling interests.


Go to next article: The Power of One or: Table of Contents.

© Copyright 1996, Cetacean Society International, Inc.

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