Human Interaction

Whale Wars Is the IWC considering changes to the whaling treaty?

posted: 05/15/12
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The International Whaling Commission meets in Santiago, Chile in June 2008. This year (2010), the IWC will consider lifting the moratorium on commercial whaling, a move they believe would help save thousands of whales over the next 10 years.
AP Photo/Santiago Llanquin

In the early 1980s, commercial whaling suffered a blow when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) instituted a moratorium on the practice. The IWC essentially banned the killing of whales, marine mammals believed to possess higher intelligence, for the purpose of harvesting their meat, bones, blubber and other valuable resources.

But what seemed like a major boon for the whales — some species of which are endangered — turned out to be something of a dud, as far as bans go. While the rule never affected aboriginal subsistence whaling, at least three countries that are under IWC jurisdiction — Japan, Norway and Iceland — still kill hundreds of whales every year under express exemptions to the moratorium. According to Time magazine, a combined total of 1,700 whales were killed in 2009.


The three countries take advantage of loopholes in the moratorium. Japan continues whaling for debatable "scientific" purposes, while Norway and Iceland hunt commercially under a registered objection to the moratorium. The IWC is planning a policy shift that would hopefully eliminate those holes — by eliminating the ban and instituting quotas.

In a strange twist, the IWC is planning to reduce the number of whales killed by commercial fisherman by lifting the commercial-whaling moratorium. The organization says that by legalizing commercial whaling and getting the three whaling nations to agree to and abide by externally imposed quotas, thousands of whales would be saved over the life of the 10-year deal. The proposed IWC quotas are lower than the self-imposed quotas currently in effect in Japan, Norway and Iceland.

The plan also compels the whaling nations to undergo surveillance of their whaling activities, in the form of shipboard observers and various kill-tracking methods.

Activist Pushback

The "save the whales" community is unimpressed. Some activists and government groups are downright outraged. They say the policy shift undermines growing international support for whale conservation and legitimizes often-cruel commercial-whaling practices that deplete whale populations. And even if the change does save whales, those opposed point out that the quotas would only be in effect for 10 years; after that, the numbers would be negotiable. They fear the quotas would increase in the face of a legalized whaling industry.

Even the initial quotas remain unspecified. The IWC announced the change in April 2010, but the details won't be finalized until the organization's summer meeting in Morocco in June. Several countries, including New Zealand and Japan, have already expressed objections that could stand in the way of consensus. New Zealand is against any lifting of the moratorium; Japan wants its commercial whaling rights further extended in certain waters.

The new policy requires a three-quarters majority to pass, and the legal future of commercial whaling (and "scientific" whaling, for that matter) hangs in the balance...

Its practical future is less unsure. Regardless of the outcome of the IWC vote, it's likely the potentially 3,000-year-old whaling tradition isn't going anywhere any time soon.

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