Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XVI No. 3 - July 2007


Of Whales and Reindeer: The 59th Annual Meeting of the International Whaling Commission

By Kate O'Connell, CSI Board


Each morning, as I walked along Anchorage's I Street on my way to the IWC meeting venue at the Captain Cook Hotel, I passed by a sight unlikely to be found anywhere else: a modest suburban home with a caged-in back yard for the family pet. Not so unusual, you might think, until I add that the pet in question is a young reindeer named Star, the fourth of his kind to live behind the Stewart family's house over the past three decades.

As I saw tourists and locals alike gawk through a fence strong enough to keep even a grizzly out, I began to feel an affinity for the small reindeer as the week wore on. The reason? The intense security that had been put in place on the occasion of the 59th Annual Meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Each and every day, participants - especially representatives from non-governmental groups such as CSI - were subjected to an amazing level of scrutiny simply to get in the doors of the IWC meeting.

With special badges and photo id, we passed by a scanning machine every time we walked in the doors of the meeting. Our freedom of movement, like Star's, was highly restricted. Further, special agents, complete with the high-tech ear-bud communication pieces that are more readily associated with a Presidential security detail, had been brought in to ensure that order was maintained. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had to have been spent on safety precautions.

Kate O'Connell, Barbara Kilpatrick, and Nancy Azzam

Kate O'Connell, Barbara Kilpatrick, and Nancy Azzam on opening day of Plenary.
Photo by Heather Rockwell.

The reason for the security measures? Fears that the whaling issue, at all times a highly charged, emotionally driven subject, could disintegrate into violent confrontation. Many environmental advocates pointed out, however, that the IWC meeting itself has not been the target of any such clashes in decades; peaceful "protests" are much more the norm.

On the Sunday prior to the opening of the IWC plenary session, one such peaceful manifestation took place as hundreds of people gathered in Delaney Park, across the street from the reindeer pen. Families with children, Hollywood celebrities, and environmental advocates from around the world, including CSI representatives, joined in a parade called the "Big Blue March."

Organized by Greenpeace, the group of peaceful marchers wound its way through the streets of Anchorage, as some carried anti-whaling signs and others wore whale suits. On foot, on bikes and even on tricycles, the group made its way around the Captain Cook and back to the park, while a nearly equal amount of security people lined the parade route and Park. Once back at Delaney, the crowd was organized into the shape of a giant whale for an aerial photograph; some of the participants were arranged to spell out a message for the IWC delegates: DEFEND! (For an aerial view of the "human whale" visit http://www.oceanday.net/ and follow the links to Anchorage.)

From the opening moments of the IWC Annual Meeting on Monday, May 28th to its close on May 31st, one issue perhaps more than any other dominated the meeting: aboriginal subsistence whaling. The meeting began with a prayer by Alberta Stephen, an elder of the Alaskan native community of Eklutna. After speeches by numerous dignitaries, including Alaska's Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), the Chairman of the Commission, Dr. William Hogarth of the US, introduced native dance groups from Barrow, Alaska, the Chukhotka region of the Russian Federation and the Makah Tribe of Washington state. The music and dancing were stirring and thought provoking, a reminder that the human-whale connection is one that can be traced back thousands of years.

The United States, as host of the meeting, had much at stake as it sought to ensure aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) quotas for both the Alaskan natives and the Makah tribe. At the 2002 IWC meeting, when the ASW quotas were last discussed, the Commission had essentially imploded over this same issue. Japan blocked the Alaskan quota in an attempt to hold the US hostage in an effort to gain support for a special exception to the commercial whaling ban for four of its coastal communities.

That IWC meeting five years ago had closed with no agreement on the Alaskan quota, as the US and other pro-conservation governments held firmly to the principle of no deal-making. However, the issue escalated into a major diplomatic incident between Japan and the US, and was only solved months later when then Secretary of State Colin Powell intervened. Many delegates feared a similar outcome in 2007, and conservationists wondered to what extent the US would be willing to go to ensure an ASW quota.

However, it was clear from the minute that Dr. Nicky Grandy, Secretariat of the IWC, took the microphone following the opening ceremony that there had been a significant sea-change in the make-up of the Commission. As Dr. Grandy detailed which countries had the right to vote, one thing became evident: conservation-minded countries were clearly in the majority. Of the seven countries that joined the Commission since last year's meeting, five are anti-whaling. Further, three of Japan's pro-whaling allies (Togo, Cameroon and the Solomon Islands) had not paid their dues, and had lost the right to vote. Membership of the IWC now stands at 77 countries.

Change was also manifested in the tenor of the early discussions over the agenda. In previous years, Japan and the other pro-whaling governments had contested many items on the meeting's agenda, taking shots at such things as the work of the Conservation Committee and whale watching. Alternate Commissioner for Japan, Joji Morishita, stated that they would not call for any matters to be deleted from the agenda as they had done in the past, in the hopes of "normalizing" the process of the IWC. Norway, although highlighting concerns it had with the agenda, agreed.

Discussions throughout the first day were in mostly measured tones, and there was none of the angry invective that plagued recent meetings of the IWC; Chairman Hogarth had urged delegates to be circumspect in their interventions, and the request seemed to be paying off, as the Commission settled down to business. Many important subjects were raised that first day, including a report from the Scientific Committee on the status of several whale species. Arne Bjorge of Norway, Chair of the IWC's Scientific Committee (SC) noted that new information had been presented on Antarctic and North Pacific common minke whales, southern hemisphere blue and humpback whales, and other small stocks of bowhead, right and gray whales.

Although there were indications that there have been increases in abundance for certain southern hemisphere stocks of humpback, blue and right whales, the SC report made clear that these stocks remain at reduced numbers compared to pre-whaling days; and for other stocks, information is still lacking. A great deal of discussion centered around human impacts on whale species, such as whale entanglements in fishing gear.

Issues such as these anthropogenic impacts on whales are among the many reasons CSI has taken a strong stand against the lifting of the IWC ban on whaling. In the Society's opening statement to the whaling commission we noted:

CSI continues to oppose any return to commercial whaling. While certain species of whales may seem to be recovering from the excesses of industrialized whaling, several species remain endangered despite decades of protection by the IWC. In light of the myriad threats that cetaceans face - such as pollution, climate change, increased ship traffic and growing levels of undersea noise - our organization firmly believes that whales are in greater need of protection than ever.

Particular concern was raised over the status of the western North Pacific gray whale, thought to number only about 120 animals. Feeding grounds for this highly endangered stock of gray whales overlap with oil and natural gas fields off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Federation, and there are also worries over additional pressure caused by deaths due to entanglement in fishing gear.

North Atlantic right whales also drew the Commission's attention. As the US referenced a paper that it had presented on whale entanglements, and possible measures to mitigate the problem, Norway highlighted the issue of animal welfare concerns for entangled whales, in particular right whales. Norway trumped the US by presenting a scientific paper specific to entanglements, forcing the US to respond. In a paper (IWC/59/17), the US outlined mitigating actions that it has taken to protect cetaceans from entanglement in fishing gear.

Dr. Egil Oen, a Norwegian vet, proposed a one day workshop on humane aspects of whale entanglements so that the issue can be discussed in greater depth. The idea was agreed to by the US and the UK, who raised the subject of gray whale entanglements in set nets. Chairman Hogarth asked Norway to convene a working group on the subject, and Australia offered its services as co-chair.

As the opening day wound to a close, the over-riding issue of this year's meeting - aboriginal subsistence whaling quotas for the US, Russia, Greenland and St. Vincent - remained unsettled, but was not allowed to fade from attention. Monday evening, the US delegation hosted a remarkable reception for all IWC participants at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a few minutes drive from downtown Anchorage.

Delegates were shuttled to the center by a fleet of buses and accompanied by a series of police cars and vans. Entering the wooded grounds of the center, passengers in the first buses were treated to the sight of a wild moose ambling along the roadside. The Heritage Center was spectacular; following a path around a small pond, visitors were able to see examples of various types of Alaskan first peoples' villages, from long houses to turf huts.

In addition to totem poles, live totems such as snowy owls, a raven and a bald eagle could all be seen. Delegates were treated to a longer and more involved display of Native song and dance by many groups for whom ASW quotas were being sought, and the evening finished with a concert by Pamyua. This well-known Alaskan Native band fuses Arctic song and dance with R&B, Latin and jazz rhythms and the concert included a performance of one of their best known songs, "Reindeer".

The second morning of the meeting, as discussions on ASW quotas began, it was clear that the fears over the US Alaskan bowhead quota were not going to be played out. The Commission readily agreed to a renewal of the bowhead quota for the Alaskan native peoples and the peoples of Chukotka; a total of up to 280 can be landed over the five year period of 2008-2012. Also agreed to was the humpback whale quota for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, under which no more than 20 whales can be killed during the same time frame.

Gray whale

Gray whale. Photo by James Dorsey.

Another of the ASW quotas, for the Eastern North Pacific gray whale was accepted, for a total catch of 620 whales (with a maximum of 140 a year) for 2008 to 2012. Even though the overall quota was agreed to, this is a contentious subject, as it is the stock from which the Makah tribe seeks to kill whales. Many groups believe that the Makah hunt does not comply with guidelines on either a continuing tradition of whaling (the Makah left off hunting for decades), or a subsistence need for whale meat (much of the meat from the one gray whale killed by the Makah in 1999 went unused).

Talks then turned to Greenland's proposed quota. Unlike the other native peoples, Greenland sought an increased quota both in terms of numbers and new species. The delegate from Greenland proposed a take of 19 fin whales, 200 minkes, 2 bowheads and 10 humpbacks. There was no clear agreement on this proposal, and the discussion was kept open.

During the afternoon, the Commission focused on the agenda item entitled "Future of the IWC". Three meetings had taken place in recent months in which the future direction of the Commission was discussed, the so-called "Normalization Meeting" held in Tokyo, the Pew Foundation-sponsored meeting held in New York City and a third meeting held in Argentina by Latin American countries (see WA's last edition for more information). Several countries noted "overlapping" concepts had come out of all three meetings, and it was felt that inter-sessional work on the topic would be worthwhile.

The South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (SAWS), proposed by Brasil and Argentina, was brought to the floor for discussion. First proposed in 1998, the sponsoring governments have continued valiantly with their efforts to get the sanctuary approved by the IWC. As this requires a Schedule Amendment change, the matter needed support from 3/4 of the members.

Day three of the plenary opened with concluding remarks on the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, and a vote was finally taken as it was clear that opinions on the subject were divided. In the end, the SAWS was defeated by a vote of 39 in favor, 29 against, with 3 abstentions. It must be noted, however, that this is a substantially better margin of support than has ever been gained by the proposal; the last vote, taken in 2005, had received the backing of only 29 governments.

It needs to be noted that it is at about this time that the general level of cordiality in the discussions, which had held remarkably well for two days, began to fall apart, and a certain "frostiness" entered the air. The Greenland ASW quota was referred to yet again, but it was clear that no progress had been made in behind-the-scenes discussions. The Chairman agreed that further time should be allowed for negotiations, and the commission turned to a matter of considerable disagreement, Japan's Small Type Coastal Whaling (STCW) proposal.

Japan gave a presentation on its STCW proposal, seeking an exception to the commercial whaling ban for four communities: Abashiri, Ayukawa, Wadura and Taiji. Joji Morishita spoke of "broken promises" that had been made to Japan when it had withdrawn its objection to the whaling moratorium, and cryptically mentioned a "deal" that had been made with the US on fishing rights in its waters. Although Morishita's tone was calm, the words were quite challenging, and the discussions were continued over to the final day.

Japan's scientific permit whaling was next on the agenda; in 2006-2007, Japan killed 505 minke whales and 3 fin whales in the Antarctic, and in 2006 had taken 195 minkes, 50 Bryde's, 100 sei and 6 sperm whales in the North Pacific, all under the guise of research. A resolution was proposed, asking Japan to refrain from issuing a scientific permit for its whaling program in the Antarctic. The resolution passed by a vote of 40 in favor, 2 against and 1 abstention. 27 countries, when asked to vote, answered "not participating". This new type of "non-vote" would begin to pop up with greater frequency thoughout the remainder of the meeting and always in conjunction with subjects not to the liking of the pro-whaling contingent.

During a hurried dinner break, delegates were invited to attend a special reception hosted by conservation and animal welfare groups at the Anchorage Performing Arts Center. Vegan-prepared local food was on offer, and delegates had the opportunity to walk through the amazing "Origami Whale Curtain" organized by artist Peggy Oki. More than 28,500 paper whales were hung in undulating screens that moved and swayed in a manner reminiscent of ocean currents. The quantity of origami whales is meant to draw attention to the number of animals killed since the moratorium came into effect.

The post-dinner session ran well into the still light Alaskan evening, as the Commission discussed environmental and human health issues. Several positive outcomes were agreed to, in particular a major IWC-sponsored workshop on climate change that is to be held in 2009. Several Latin American delegations spoke to the importance of work on environmental threats, among them Argentina, Costa Rica and Ecuador.

The UK raised the issue of oil and gas development in the Gulf of Alaska and Bristol Bay, key habitat for the endangered eastern North Pacific right whale, and stated its hope that the US will ensure that human impacts on this habitat will be reduced. Mexico spoke in support of the UK's statement. Given that host city Anchorage is home to many leading oil companies and that several were represented on the US delegation, this statement showed a great deal of gumption.

With energies waning, the Commission moved on to a discussion of a Scientific Committee report on whale watching. The SC had noted that in some cases, whale watching and other vessel traffic can have a negative impact on certain stocks of whales, and the report encouraged governments to take action in terms of regulating such ship movements. There will be a two-day workshop convened in 2008 to discuss research elements associated with whale watching.

As readers of Whales Alive! know, CSI has been in the forefront of efforts to encourage well managed whale watching, and Director Emeritus Robbins Barstow was instrumental in organizing the first international symposium on whale watching in 1983. The society presented a copy of Board member Dan Knaub's DVD on whale watching to Commissioners and delegates at the 2007 IWC meeting, and included a message written by Dr. Barstow that spoke to the importance of whale watching as the "optimum utilization" of whales:

CSI holds that it is clearly arguable that the best use of whale resources today - economically, scientifically, ecologically, educationally, and ethically - lies in non-consumptive utilization such as well regulated whale watching, benign research, education and the arts.

A resolution on the non-lethal use of whales, led by the Latin governments and supported by 16 countries, was adopted by a vote of 42 in favor, with 2 against. There were also 2 abstentions, and 20 countries "not participating." The resolution, the first of its kind at the IWC, states that the commission "recognizes the valuable benefits that can be derived from the non-lethal uses of cetaceans as a resource both in terms of socio-economic and scientific development" and went on to accept non-lethal use as a legitimate management strategy that governments are encouraged to consider in future.

As weary delegates wended their way out of the conference hall, several major issues were still pending for the final day. Greenland's ASW quota, Japan's whaling request for the four coastal communities, and the relationship between the IWC and CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) had all yet to be decided. Yet when delegates arrived on the 31st of May, eager to begin, it was to find doors closed and a private Commissioners' meeting in session.

Finally, the doors opened and a discussion ensued over Greenland's quota. The discussions on this subject continued to be heated, particularly as Greenland had continued to include a take of West Greenland bowhead whales for which many delegations felt there was insufficient scientific evidence to justify a take. Although Greenland had removed a proposal to kill humpback whales from its original quota proposal, it was still going back and forth on the issue of "takes" versus "strikes".

This last bit, although sounding similar, can actually have a major impact on an ASW hunt. Not all animals struck are landed (or "taken"); sea and weather conditions can mean that a struck animal is lost to the hunter. But a struck animal is also wounded and likely to die after the hunt, so conservationists have long argued that in ASW quotas, the term "struck", not "taken," should be used.

Eventually, Greenland agreed to use the term "struck," and the final proposal was for 19 West Greenland fin whales struck per year, 200 West Greenland common minke whales struck per year, 2 West Greenland bowhead whales struck per year, and 12 East Greenland minke whales to be struck per year. The bowhead kill, which was extremely contentious, will be subjected to an annual review by the Scientific Committee. The proposal went to a vote, 41 in support, 11 against and 16 abstentions, and the proposed Schedule Amendment was declared to have been accepted.

The UK quickly raised its placard and contested the result, stating that it was its belief that the proposal had failed to meet the 3/4 vote mandate needed. Dr. Grandy then read from the rules of procedure, which stated that the vote was counted of all those voting yea or nay, and not including abstentions. This meant that the proposal had indeed passed.

The topic of the Commission's relationship with CITES was then raised, and a resolution was introduced by the UK. The text essentially overturned the St. Kitts Declaration's statement that the moratorium is no longer necessary (Whales Alive!, vol. XV No. 3), and asked CITES not to down-list cetacean species while the moratorium remains in effect. There was intense discussion on the subject, and when the vote was finally tabulated, there were 37 in favor, 4 against, 4 abstentions and 26 "not participating".

One of the more somber moments of the meeting came when the SC acknowledged that that baiji, or Chinese river dolphin, was probably extinct due to habitat degradation and entanglements in fishing gear. The IWC then moved to a resolution on the vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the Upper Gulf of California in Mexico; the vaquita faces much the same threats as did the baiji and the SC fears that it, too, could go extinct if action is not taken immediately. The resolution passed by consensus.

As the meeting drew to a close, the venue for the 2009 meeting came up for debate (the 2008 meeting is already set for Santiago, Chile). At this point, however, Yokohoma, Japan - one of the two settings proposed - withdrew its offer, saying that the IWC, in failing to support Japan's STCW proposal, is not a rational organization. Madeira, Portugal was then selected for the 61st meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

CSI fielded a particularly strong delegation to the IWC meeting, and it was a pleasure to work alongside board members Heather Rockwell and Nancy Azzam, as well as CSI Treasurer Barbara Kilpatrick. Nancy attended the meeting on behalf of the Windstar Foundation, and Barbara served both as an interpreter and a gifted political analyst for our team. In addition, Heather, for the second year in a row, was appointed as NGO Representative to the US government delegation, serving as the key liaison between the delegation and the US community of conservation groups. She worked in conjunction with the US, in particular John Field of the State Department, to shepherd through improvements in the rules of participation for NGO observers at the IWC, and her efforts, as are John's, are gratefully recognized.

For a group based only on volunteer efforts, with no paid staff, CSI's impact has been far reaching. Many governments participating in this year's meeting made mention of our group's support of researchers and conservationists, in particular in developing countries, and indeed, several delegation members were either current or past recipients of small CSI grants. We hope that our members can take pride in our efforts, and we thank all of you whose support make this work possible.

And while the whales and I are free to roam, Star the reindeer is still in her cage.

CSI at the IWC

CSI at the IWC. L-R, Nancy Azzam, for Windstar Foundation,
Kate O'Connell for CSI, Heather Rockwell, appointed to the U.S. Delegation
to represent all U.S. NGOs, and Barbara Kilpatrick, for CSI. What a team!


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