EIA is blogging from the IWC in Panama this week

Friday, July 6

The 64th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) drew to a close in Panama with a number of good agreements and a feeling that progress has been made.

The last day began with discussion of the resolution proposed by Monaco on highly migratory cetaceans in the high seas. It sought to increase the synergy between the IWC and the United Nations on the conservation of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) and to focus UN attention on the whaling carried out in these waters despite the moratorium on commercial whaling.

Long discussion took place, with some strong support from pro-conservation countries but opposition from those supporting commercial whaling. It was decided to withdraw the resolution since there was no consensus, but this initiative will be pursued further.

With respect to the adoption of the IWC’s work plan and budget, strong criticism was voiced about the inclusion of funding for the review of Iceland’s scientific whaling programme, which ended five years ago. It was clearly stated by several countries that if a country carries out such whaling it should be required to pay the costs of its peer review. In the event, there was no consensus on withdrawal of the funding and it was agreed to adopt the Scientific Committee work plan without change; however, a process to examine these budgetary issues will be established for the next meeting.

Jennifer Lonsdale, left, and Clare Perry at the IWC in Panama

Meanwhile, it was very pleasing to see the budget adopted include funds for the Marine Debris Workshop. EIA has contributed significantly to the work on marine debris at this meeting and it is exciting to see it receiving universal approval from the Commission. Several other conservation initiatives received funding from the IWC’s core budget, demonstrating its commitment to addressing these overwhelming threats to cetaceans. In addition, over £11,000 was donated to the IWC’s voluntary fund for small cetaceans, in addition to numerous voluntary donations towards the cost of the Marine Debris workshop, including one from EIA.

Japan’s proposal to achieve approval of quotas in its coastal waters under a spurious new category of whaling was firmly rejected and was withdrawn. In response, Japan proposed an IWC-endorsed group to work on the issue over the next year. This too was rejected and withdrawn as it is very clear this is commercial whaling under another guise.

For some time the IWC has been considering moving to biennial meetings, with its Scientific Committee continuing to meet each year. To facilitate management of this arrangement, the establishment of a Bureau was proposed to steer the work of the Commission with the Secretariat between meetings. Much discussion took place on the make-up of the Bureau, including a balance of views and regional representation. After some discussion and argument on minutia, it was agreed by consensus and the IWC will now begin to meet biennially for the first time in its 64-year history.

A number of countries submitted a resolution on the creation of a fund to strengthen the capacity of governments of limited means to participate in the work of the IWC. This was withdrawn due to lack of support, partly because several countries noted that the proposal was in conflict with language in the IWC’s convention and this would need to be resolved before such an agreement could be made.

The meeting ended with several housekeeping items. The Australian Commissioner, Donna Petrachenko, agreed to another term as Chair of Finance & Administration Committee and was rightly thanked for her excellent work in this very important role.

Jeanine Compton-Antoine, St Lucia’s Commissioner, was appointed Chair of the IWC, the first woman to take the post. Belgium’s Commissioner will support her as Vice Chair.

Finally, we concluded with sincere thanks to Bruno Mainini for his excellent stewardship of the meeting, and to South Africa Commissioner Herman Oosthuizen, the interim Chair for the past year. In addition, the Secretary and his team were warmly thanked for so much hard work and efficiency in ensuring the meeting ran smoothly. EIA thanks all these people sincerely for their outstanding commitment and work for this important convention and its operation.

The Government of Panama was thanked for being a perfect host. EIA and all the delegates very much appreciated the warm welcome and excellent facilities – it was a privilege to take part in this meeting in such a fascinating and beautiful country.

Jennifer Lonsdale, EIA Founder & Senior Oceans Campaigner


Thursday,  July 5

Today the IWC once again proved it has the ability to overcome differences between member states to tackle key international issues.

Cetaceans have accumulated heavy burdens of pollutants through the food chain. These include heavy metals, particularly mercury and organochlorines including PCBs. Not only do they have the strong potential to negatively impact on the health of whales, dolphins and porpoises but also those who consume products from the hunting of these animals are vulnerable to diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, and children’s intellectual development can be severely impaired.

The IWC meeting discussed this issue today, with universal concern being expressed by all parties. A resolution initiated by Germany was submitted to the meeting by EU IWC members. It highlighted the problem of contaminants found in cetaceans, their impact on consumers and the importance of continued scientific research into this problem. It called for increased cooperation with the World Health Organisation, welcomed work carried out so far into this problem and requested its continuation.

Importantly, it also urged Governments to take necessary steps to counter the negative effects of consuming cetacean products based on rigorous scientific advice and clear risk assessment.

An excellent debate took place and eventually – after several amendments, coffee break discussions and, of course, EU coordination – the resolution was passed by consensus.

Denmark’s dangerous games

With respect to the request for a continued Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling quota for Greenland, Denmark stated it would not compromise and asked for an increase in the number of fin and humpback whales to be taken over the next six years; this despite revelations that whale meat is widely available in tourist restaurants even though the intent of this special whaling category is to provide food for traditional subsistence communities.

Greenland was strongly criticised for allowing this commercial sale and questions were raised about the actual needs of these communities.

Greenland and Denmark knew that if they sought a compromise, possibly even higher quotas than the previous years’ levels, the EU countries and other IWC members would support their quota request. Instead, knowing they would fail, they put the expanded proposal to a vote, which was overwhelmingly rejected with 25 in favour, 34 against and thee abstentions. A 75 per cent majority approval would have been required and the strength of opposition can be seen by the fact that well over half of those voting opposed this request.

How Denmark deals with these communities in Greenland in the coming months remains to be seen, but it is saddening to Greenland and Denmark play such political games with some true subsistence communities’ needs at stake.

The way the IWC works

Administrative items are important matters on the agenda as the IWC moves to modernise and introduce better practice and good governance. The definition of what is the quorum required to enable voting that plagued the IWC meeting in 2011 was discussed in detail. It was decided that since the meeting has operated smoothly this year under the existing rules of procedure, no changes would be made for the time being.

There is general support for the IWC to move towards biennial meetings, breaking the tradition of 64 years of annual meetings. The final decision is yet to be made but it is expected that this will become the practice, with the Scientific Committee meeting every year with a Bureau being established to manage the ongoing affairs of the Commission in association with its Secretariat.

As the IWC gradually modernises, allowing NGOs to speak on agenda items is being integrated into its work at a slow but steady pace. Regardless of the position of individual organisations, it is recognised that the IWC must welcome the opinions and expertise of civil society as part of its deliberations.

The near-extinct vaquita (c) Thomas A. Jefferson

Save the vaquita and other endangered small cetaceans

The Scientific Committee’s work on small cetaceans was discussed, with an enormous body of work being undertaken to identify threats and develop programmes to protect vulnerable species.

Yet again, attention was focused on the Mexican vaquita, which is on the verge of extinction with fewer than 250 porpoises remaining. The situation was described by the Chair of the Scientific Committee in no uncertain terms: if we wish to save the vaquita – the most endangered, space-restricted marine mammal in the world – we have to immediately remove all gillnets from the upper Gulf of California.

Concern was also expressed for a number of other small and endangered populations of small cetaceans, including the Maui dolphin in New Zealand. China discussed its efforts to protect the finless porpoise in its coastal waters. Brazil noted its work to protect the Franciscana.

So few of us even know of the dozens of small cetacean species that exist around the world and yet it will take a huge international effort to ensure that no more follow the tragic path of the Chinese river dolphin or Baiji.

Real science versus sham science

The final item from the Scientific Committee report discussed the remarkable research programme led by Australia being undertaken in the Southern Ocean, which demonstrates the enormous amount of essential scientific information that can be obtained from non-lethal research.

This puts to shame the paltry results of Japan’s so-called scientific whaling programme, peer review of which concludes that it is of little value despite killing thousands of whales.

EIA would like to say a big thank-you to Dr Debbie Palka, who finished her third year as Chair of the Scientific Committee. Debbie has always been willing to answer a multitude of (sometimes probably not entirely intelligent) questions about the Scientific Committee report with enormous patience and charm, even when she was in her fourth week in a row of meetings.


Wednesday, July 4

The meeting opened today with the Report on the Working Group on Whale Killing Methods and Associated Welfare Issues.

IWC Contracting governments have an obligation to provide data on times to death and methods used to kill whales, and the availability and quality of this data is absolutely necessary if progress is to be made on reducing the appalling suffering inherent in the killing of whales.

While those countries that have aboriginal subsistence hunts did submit some data, Japan, Iceland and Norway once again demonstrated their consistent desire to undermine the IWC and refused to provide any data.

Despite this, a commendable amount of work to reduce the suffering of whales entangled in fishing nets took place during the year, including theoretical and practical training in Argentina. Whales can suffer for very extended periods of time when entangled in nets and the IWC is working hard to find solutions to this problem. It is frequently not simple to release a large entangled whale and expertise is required to avoid further suffering to the whale and injury to those working to free them.

EIA took part in a UK-hosted meeting on welfare and ethics earlier in the year, which developed a useful set of recommendations, including the need for consideration of the welfare implications of the myriad threats affecting cetaceans including ship strikes, entanglement, marine debris, pollution and habitat destruction.

This positive start to the day was followed by a submission from Japan, yet again, for a quota under a proposed new category of whaling for four communities which have allegedly suffered for more than 25 years since the ban on commercial whaling was implemented. This unfounded and spurious claim was heavily criticised, and the proposal was strongly opposed by many countries since it is clearly commercial whaling. Numerous countries, for example Brazil, Portugal, Chile and Peru, were whaling in the 1980s but complied with the moratorium in 1986.

Japan has not stated how many whales it is requesting and whether or not these are in addition to its already overloaded scientific permit whaling programme which is having difficulties actually selling the resulting meat. It should be noted that this whaling would likely target minke whales from an endangered population.

Iceland was also criticised for its fin whale hunt quotas, which far exceed any kind of levels that the Scientific Committee might calculate as potentially sustainable.

Korea forced the most controversial and heated debate by announcing plans to start its own scientific permit whaling. It stated that minke whales were increasing in Korean coastal waters and eating all the fish and it therefore needed to kill whales to study the situation. There was no mention that perhaps humans are eating all fish which should be consumed by whales, and in fact Korea already has a sizeable minke whale bycatch problem in addition to illegal whaling of minkes in the area. The plan was described by New Zealand as “bordering on reckless”, notably given that the whales belong to an endangered population already being hit by both bycatch and Japan’s whaling.

Japan was again strongly condemned for its ‘scientific whaling’ in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary and the North Pacific. We were also pleased that a number of countries are questioning the use of IWC core funds for a Scientific Committee workshop to review Iceland’s scientific whale hunt that finished in 2008, preferring that the money is committed to other projects which have more relevance to the IWC; more on that when it’s discussed under the Finance and Administration agenda item.

As usual, the report of the Scientific Committee’s Environment Group was a stark reminder of the serious threats to the marine environment which affect cetaceans. It’s very encouraging to see that the IWC is committed to an enormous body of work to find solutions for all whales, dolphins and porpoises. There is growing recognition that while the IWC holds the cetacean expertise, it is imperative that it works in partnership with other international and inter-governmental organisations, such as the International Maritime Organisation, to develop effective mitigation measures.


Tuesday, July 4

The day began with discussion of aboriginal subsistence quotas for the US, St Vincent & the Grenadines and the Russian Federation. The proposals were submitted in a package, which many countries and NGOs were unhappy with, given the consistent problems with St Vincent’s whaling which include the fundamental issue of whether it qualifies as ‘indigenous’.

Many countries, especially those from the Latin American bloc, requested that the proposals be considered separately, but the three countries remained firm that they would be treated as a package, forcing the Buenos Aires group to request the proposal be put to a vote. The proposal obtained the necessary 75 per cent majority to be adopted, with 48 votes in favour, 10 votes against and two abstentions.

Discussion then continued with the Greenland proposal, which attracted stronger criticism from the floor given that its request is to expand the whaling quotas despite clear evidence that whale meat is sold to tourists in restaurants. With no consensus, Denmark (representing Greenland) asked for more time to consult, so the agenda item remains open.

Next up was Conservation Committee, a body that has grown considerably in recent years, both in terms of the issues being covered and the depth and expertise in that coverage. The meeting this year demonstrated a coming of age for the committee, which is effectively addressing a large number of issues such as ship strikes, whale disentanglement, critically endangered populations of whales, whale watching and conservation management plans for small and large cetaceans.

Whale watching was discussed by the Commission, prompting the longest intervention so far from Cyprus on behalf of the European Union. There’s growing support for whale watching as a truly sustainable use of whales, but recognition that the IWC has a significant role to play in terms of research and the mitigation of potential threats from whale watching activities.

Mexico, as Chair of the Conservation Committee, reported on the issue of marine debris. EIA scientist Sarah Baulch presented a scientific review of the evidence for impacts of marine debris on cetaceans to the Scientific Committee two weeks prior to the IWC Commission meeting. Together with a number of other papers, this contributed towards a recommendation to hold a workshop next year to more fully explore the issue. This was expanded to become a joint Scientific Committee and Conservation Committee workshop, and was adopted as a recommendation by the Commission. EIA will be involved in the workshop and has committed financial resources towards supporting the workshop.

The issue of funding for scientific research at the IWC is coming under significant scrutiny this year – much of the significant body of conservation currently carried out has been supported by voluntary donations, in particular from Australia, but also the UK, USA, Italy and The Netherlands, as well as NGOs.  EIA has been drawing attention to this issue for many years and governments are now working towards committing a greater proportion of the Commission’s core funds towards conservation-related work.

In the evening we were invited to a reception hosted by the Australian minister, who gave an inspiring speech on the importance of the southern ocean research partnership and its commitment to the protection of whales around the globe.


Monday, July 3

A total of 64 parties, 240 delegations and 140 observers are attending the 64th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which opened with a warm welcome from the Government of Panama. Rather than prolonged speeches, they showed stunning film footage of whales found in Panama’s coastal waters – sending a strong message to delegates about why we are all here.

The first substantive item on the agenda was the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary. Last year, the democratic process was derailed as whaling nations and their allies walked out when the vote was called and the meeting descended into chaos. Thankfully, this year was different and the Latin American countries were able to exercise their democratic right to vote once it was clear that there was no consensus. It was the first vote in four years of IWC meetings and the sanctuary received a substantial majority in favour (38); but with 21 opposed and two abstentions, it did not receive the 75 per cent majority required to be adopted into the Schedule of the IWC.

Next up was discussion of the Future of the IWC – a reasonable-sounding agenda item but something which in the past has been used to promote controversial compromise deals that would legitimise commercial whaling quotas. Australia firmly stated that the future process was over, while other countries – notably the Russian Federation – were pushing for more concerted action. New Zealand drew attention to ongoing commercial and scientific whaling as something that needed to be resolved. Most countries did not take the floor, indicating that this particular future process is already over.

Renewal of the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling quotas is one of the most controversial and potentially divisive issues on the agenda this year and discussion began in the afternoon. Time constraints meant that the proposals for subsistence quotas from the US, Russian Federation, St Vincent & the Grenadines and Greenland will be presented on Tuesday.

Clare Perry, Ocean Campaign Leader