Between rescue and slaughter – a tale of two whales and the future conservation role of the International Whaling Commission
Last week, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) shared the news of the successful and highly significant rescue of an endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale entangled in fishing gear.
Having been alerted two days prior, on January 21 the Oman Environmental Authority, Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC and Future Seas Global SPC were able to free the whale from a gillnet off the coast of Duqm, Oman.
The team was assisted by a number of national authorities, including Oman’s Coast Guard, Royal Oman Police, Royal Air Force of Oman and the Port of Duqm. They were also provided with real-time advice from members of the IWC entanglement expert panel.
Humpback whales typically migrate, but the entangled humpback is a member of a unique endemic population which principally resides year-round in the Arabian Sea. Current estimates suggest fewer than 100 individuals remain, making it one of the most endangered populations of large whales in the world.
This wasn’t the first time a whale from this group has been entangled and the results of a recent IWC Scientific Committee study indicate that approximately two-thirds of Arabian Sea humpbacks in Oman have scarring consistent with interaction with fishing gear.
Entanglements (also known as bycatch) happen when there is an overlap between fishing activity and whale feeding grounds, habitat and migratory routes. Active fishing gear is not the only cause. Lost, discarded and abandoned gear (known as ‘ghost gear’) also poses a serious threat to whales and other marine species in addition to being a major form of marine plastic pollution.
Entanglements are recognised as the most pervasive human-caused threat to whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively called cetaceans), causing an estimated minimum 300,000 deaths annually. Whales that survive may have to live with painful injuries for the rest of their lives.
Compounded with the impacts of climate change, habitat loss, pollution (noise, plastic and chemical) and the increasing risk of ship strikes, cetaceans face more threats now than ever before.
The IWC has recognised the seriousness of the entanglement threat and created an entanglement response network to help tackle this global problem. Having created this platform to share information and providing multiple trainings, including for those who undertook this recent rescue in Oman, whale entanglement rescues can now be conducted safely by a larger number of trained professionals more widely around the world.
The IWC’s expertise and authority to provide and ensure global training and support on this issue is critical, as expressed by the Environment Society of Oman’s Executive Director, Suaad Al Harthi, who said: “We would like to express our sincere thanks to the dedicated team of specialists who worked under the guidance of the International Whaling Commission’s Entanglement Response Network and to the Port of Duqm, the Royal Oman Police Coastguard and the Royal Air Force Oman who all supported this effort. Without them, this mission wouldn’t have been a success.”
The Oman Environment Authority stated: “The humpback whale is among the largest mammals and its length reaches more than 15 meters and is classified as an endangered species, so it is prohibited to catch it, and its preservation is one of the environmental priorities that everyone must follow in order to preserve this type of living creatures.”
In stark contrast to the rescue of this humpback whale, the plight of a minke whale trapped in a fishing net in Taiji, home to Japan’s notorious dolphin-capture and -killing cove, for more than two weeks in January was documented by the Japanese NGO Life Investigation Agency.
Rather than set the whale free, local fishermen claimed that safety concerns hampered any rescue operations. The whale was eventually held headfirst underwater where it suffocated in a prolonged and cruel death. Its meat and blubber were soon found on sale in local markets.
Japan, which left the IWC in 2019 and recommenced commercial whaling in its own waters outside of IWC regulations and international law, has not yet officially responded to this incident.
Footage of the minke being killed – please be aware this material contains scenes which may distress some viewers
Japanese regulations permit the sale of products from bycaught whales, reducing the incentive to free them. According to Fisheries Agency data, an average of 134 large whales are bycaught in Japan’s coastal waters each year.
EIA has been working to protect cetaceans from harmful human activities, including bycatch, since it was founded in 1984. This includes working closely with the IWC for more than three decades to develop its vital work as the leading global intergovernmental body addressing cetacean conservation and welfare.
EIA, together with other conservation and welfare NGOs, envisages the IWC as being at the centre of global, regional and local efforts to ensure the full recovery and health of all cetacean populations, safeguarding their welfare and maximising their ecological contributions to healthy oceans..
We will be working with others to make this vision a reality as the IWC celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2021. The IWC whale watching handbook, recent adoption of conservation-focused resolutions (for example, on underwater noise and the Florianopolis Declaration), capacity-building efforts such as those undertaken by the IWC entanglement expert panel as well as countless other areas of scientific research and conservation workstreams already demonstrate the IWC’s ability to undertake and be successful in such a role.
The swift and collaborative rescue of a highly endangered and vulnerable humpback whale in Oman is a beacon of hope and we strongly congratulate all those involved.