Whale Wars What is a whale sanctuary?

A minke whale swims through Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The reef is part of the Australian Whale Sanctuary, which fully protects whales to a distance of 200 miles from the country's borders.
Kike Calvo via AP Images

The function of a whale sanctuary is to provide a safe haven for whales — an area where they can exist free from commercial whaling pressures.

The world's first whale sanctuary was established in 1938 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Called "The Sanctuary," it protected one-quarter of the whale population in Antarctica until, under pressure from the whaling industry, it was opened to commercial whaling in 1955.

For more than two decades, whales remained unprotected in international waters. During this time, the great baleen whales — blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales and right whales — were nearly wiped out, a situation that led to the establishment of the commercial-whaling moratorium in 1986.

Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary

In 1979, recognizing that whale populations were severely diminished, the IWC established the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary to protect southern whales in their breeding and calving grounds. The sanctuary was first proposed by the tiny island nation of Seychelles in what was the nation's first meeting as an IWC member.

All commercial whaling is banned within the sanctuary's boundaries, which span from Africa to Australia, and south to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary

The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was adopted in 1994 at the 46th Annual Meeting of the IWC, during which 23 countries supported the creation of the sanctuary and only Japan opposed it. With this act, the IWC effectively banned all commercial whaling in this 50 million-square-kilometer area.

The sanctuary's boundaries, which encircle Antarctica, cover the summer feeding grounds for an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the world's whales.

The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is reviewed every ten years by the IWC and can be revised during the review process. In 2004, Japan proposed removing the sanctuary but failed to achieve the 75 percent majority required to make this change. This IWC sanctuary applies only to commercial whaling, so Japan has continued to hunt whales inside its boundaries for purposes of scientific research. Many anti-whaling activists, however, believe that much of the catch within the sanctuary is actually used for commercial purposes.

Australian Whale Sanctuary

The Australian Whale Sanctuary was established by Australia in 1999. This national sanctuary protects all whales and dolphins found in Australian waters. Within the sanctuary, it is illegal to kill, injure or interfere with a cetacean, and there are severe penalties for anyone convicted of this type of offense.

The sanctuary's range covers Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Under the law of the sea, an EEZ provides a country with special rights over exploration and use of marine resources within that zone. In Australia's case, the EEZ extends 200 nautical miles from the continent of Australia and its external territories, such as Christmas, Cocos, Norfolk, Heard and Macdonald Islands. The sanctuary also includes the EEZ around the Australian Antarctic Territory, but this territory is not recognized by all countries worldwide.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this sanctuary has been the cause of ongoing controversy between Australia and Japan. In 2008 the Australian Federal Court ruled that it was illegal for the Japanese whaling fleet to injure or kill whales within Australian Whale Sanctuary boundaries.

Future International Sanctuaries?

The IWC has received two additional proposals for the establishment of sanctuaries in the South Atlantic (proposed by Brazil and Argentina) and South Pacific (proposed by Australia and New Zealand), but, to date, neither has achieved the three-quarters majority of votes needed to establish such sanctuaries.

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