IWC67: Commercial whaling kept at bay, with all eyes on Japan’s next move

After a tense and sometimes turbulent two weeks in Florianopolis, Brazil, Ocean Campaigner Juliet Phillips reflects on the progress made during the 67th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC67) and lifts the lid on arguments heard in support of the resumption of commercial whaling..

Humpback whales, by NOAA

A storm had been brewing ahead of IWC67, with Japan making its most forthright attempt to date to overturn the global ban on commercial whaling.

Japan’s so-called IWC Reform Proposal called for the formation of a Sustainable Whaling Committee to set commercial catch quotas as well as the convening of a diplomatic conference to amend the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Nations from around the world met in September to discuss this and numerous other issues, including a proposal to create a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary and a complex package proposal for the renewal of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling catch limits.

But while Japan’s whaling proposal was rejected by a strong majority of IWC members and the meeting’s outcomes were generally favourable to whale conservation, this is unlikely to be the end of Japan’s belligerent campaign to resume commercial whaling.

A harpoon has been fired from the front of the ship into the water where the whale is swimming. Blood is pouring out of the whale. Accession #: 3.0126.001.12

Japanese ‘scientiific’ whaling (c) Australian Customs Service

In the run-up to the meeting, pro-whaling elements in Japan had actively promoted their agenda at a domestic and international level. Described as the ‘Way Forward’, Japan’s proposal was in fact a blatant attempt to go back in time and reopen the commercial hunting of some of the world’s most vulnerable creatures.

Underpinning Japan’s position was its oft-repeated claim that by denying commercial whaling, the IWC is dysfunctional since the 1946 Whaling Convention provides the IWC with a mandate “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”.

Although there was nothing in the proposal to attract pro-conservation governments, Japan insisted at the outset that the package should be adopted by consensus. In response, the Australian Commissioner said: “… given the stark and uncompromising ambition of this proposal and the manner and rate in which it has been presented to the Commission, it is hard to avoid the difficult conclusion that the proposal has been designed and bought forward with the intent and in the clear knowledge it will fail.”

At EIA, our view is clear – commercial whaling makes no sense in the 21st century and is unnecessary, uneconomic and inhumane. The IWC’s work over more than 25 years to tackle increasingly grave threats to whales, dolphins and porpoises and the marine environment underpins the need for the 1986 commercial whaling moratorium to remain firmly in place. The recovery of whales from the devastation of the 19th century is now jeopardised by non-hunting threats including climate change, bycatch and plastic pollution.

While it is undisputed that environmental and conservation pressures threaten cetaceans globally, it has not been proven that commercial whaling ever has been or ever could be ‘sustainable’. The fact the IWC does not condone commercial whaling indeed speaks to the Commission’s functionality in upholding its 1986 ruling.

In contrast to Japan’s mantra of dysfunctionality, IWC67 demonstrated time and again the impressive amount of work and progress achieved. A complex package of proposals for five-year quotas for aboriginal subsistence whaling was carefully negotiated and two resolutions were adopted by consensus tackling issues of global importance – ocean noise and ghost fishing gear.

Canned whale on sale in a Japanese supermarket (c) EIAimage

Canned whale on sale in a Japanese supermarket (c) EIAimage

The first key vote of IWC67 on the proposal to adopt a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary resulted in a significant majority in support but failed to achieve the required three-quarters majority to be adopted. Despite support from groups working on marine conservation across West Africa, countries voting with Japan and pro-whaling allies included Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sao Tome & Principe. This vote was disappointing but perhaps not surprising, following Japan’s multi-year global outreach campaign.

A resolution to build on the IWC’s work to understand the positive contributions cetaceans make to the marine ecosystems was adopted by a simple majority vote; it was opposed by pro-whaling countries which accused it of negating the ‘lethal sustainable use’ agenda.

Discussion on the penultimate day of the meeting focused on two alternative visions for the IWC. In contrast to Japan’s commercial whaling proposal, the Florianopolis Declaration affirmed the promising direction of the IWC as a global science-based conservation body. The Declaration agreed that the role of the IWC in the 21st century included the responsibility to ensure the recovery of cetacean populations, agreed that lethal scientific whaling is unnecessary and called on the Commission to ensure adequate funding for conservation and non-lethal management issues. It was adopted with 40 in favour, 27 opposing and four abstentions.

Japan’s package was rejected on the final morning with a vote of 41 against, 27 in favour and two abstentions. In reaction, the Japanese Vice Minister for Fisheries indicated the country would continue dialogue with the IWC on its future reform but would have to re-evaluate membership if commercial whaling based on science continued to be to be denied.

In summary, during the two weeks of discussion in working groups, committees and the plenary meeting, plus hours and hours of behind-the-scenes whale, NZnegotiations, the Contracting Governments to the International Whaling Commission reaffirmed its comprehensive programme of work to ensure the conservation of the world’s cetaceans.

With the passage of the Florianopolis Declaration, the IWC confirmed the continued importance of the moratorium on commercial whaling.

And while conservationists celebrate this step, it is unlikely that Japan will drop its commercial whaling crusade as a result. A watchful eye will be required as the country considers its next move.