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Portorož/Wädenswil, 28 October 2016. The international marine conservation organisation OceanCare draws mixed conclusions of the 66th conference of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), ending today in Portorož, Slovenia.

Apart from the vote results further below, OceanCare sees two main challenges for the future of the IWC:

1.The European Union has a central role as the largest voting block:
The EU has to develop a vision for the future of cetacean conservation in order to become a driving force within the IWC. “Cetaceans are strictly protected by EU laws and must not be hunted. It is essential to carry these values into international fora and to take on a leading role in cetacean conservation by launching specific initiatives. The EU has the, so far unutilised, potential to lead the IWC into a future that lives up to animal protection and species conservation”, says Nicolas Entrup, spokesperson for OceanCare. The European Union did not present any initiatives of its own at the current conference.

2. The body needs better enforcement mechanisms:
The IWC needs, following the example of many international fisheries organisations or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), better enforcement mechanisms in order to be able to take action against infringements. “The IWC needs teeth”, states Nicolas Entrup for OceanCare and explains: “If there are no enforcement mechanisms, we have to expect that countries continue to disregard IWC decisions. But maybe we need a solution outside the IWC, i.e., within the United Nations, as Japan not even abides by the ruling of the International Court of Justice.” Japan continued its whaling activities without assessment of the ‘scientific’ whaling programme by the IWC. “Now there is a new and more stringent assessment procedure and we shall wait and see its proof of values”, says Entrup.

Fabienne McLellan of OceanCare also points to a range of positive initiatives by the IWC that show that the body – although slowly – is transforming itself and increasingly focuses on cetacean conservation initiatives. “The international cooperation to reduce bycatch and the development of measures to preserve critically endangered whale and dolphin species show exemplarily that many IWC member states acknowledge that efficient cetacean conservation is only possible in a comprehensive approach.”

The next IWC conference will take place in Brazil in 2018. OceanCare anticipates that it will be a tough conference as the renewal of aboriginal whaling quotas will be on the agenda. Decisions surrounding quotas tend to be politicised (as happened in the past) in a way that the pro-whaling block rejects whaling quotas for the Inuit, if there are no concessions to the interests of whaling nations. On the other side, Brazil will intensively lobby for approval of a whale sanctuary in the Southern Atlantic. “Trade-offs seem all too likely. But it must not happen at the expense of the whales”, concludes Entrup.

An overview of some of the concrete outcomes of the IWC conference:

  • The resolution on improving the review process for scientific whaling brought forward by Australia and New Zealand has been adopted by majority vote. Unanimity has not been possible due to the opposition by Japan and its usual supporters. New scientific programmes will be subject to an independent in-depth assessment by the IWC Standing Working Group and the Scientific Committee. Japan may take part in this process only as an observer and has to grant access to the scientific data gathered from their scientific whaling programmes.
  • While commercial whaling was not officially on the agenda, the EU Commission criticised the whaling activities by Iceland and Norway, who undermine the whaling ban. About 15,000 minke and fin whales fell victim to the harpoons of the European whalers since the moratorium entered into force in 1986. The EU Commission also called on the two Nordic countries to immediately halt their escalating whale product exports.
  • The proposal by five African countries (Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Guinea, and Benin) to gain acceptance for whaling for food and nutritional security has been deferred. It was one of the futile attempts by Japan to legalise whaling through this backdoor.
  • The resolution on the vital contributions of cetaceans to marine ecosystem functioning was adopted by majority vote. This resolution emphasises how important the marine giants are for healthy and productive oceans, and how whales contribute to climate change mitigation.
  • Brazil and Colombia placed a proposal that the IWC should closely cooperate with the Minamata Convention, which was adopted by majority vote. The Minamata Convention entered into force in 2013 with the mission to control health risks caused by mercury. In the 1950s, thousands of people died and tens of thousands fell severely ill because of industrial mercury contamination in the Japanese city of Minamata. However, Japan of all countries was the major opponent of this resolution.
  • A resolution to protect the critically endangered vaquita (Californian porpoise) was adopted by consensus. Japan and a number of Caribbean and African countries abstained, but did not block the proposal.
  • OceanCare calls for strict enforcement measures in case of infringements against IWC rules (“infractions”). In a joint statement with twelve other NGOs, OceanCare addresses the lack of enforcement capabilities in this body and points to examples in other international fora.
  • The proposal issued by Argentina, Brazil, Gabon, South Africa and Uruguay to implement a large whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic received a clear majority (38 yes vs. 24 no votes with 2 abstentions), but did not reach the three-fourths majority required.
  • Japan is pushing the IWC for years to legalise whaling in the Northwest Pacific and to accept it as a new category “small type coastal whaling” – under the pretence of the coastal communities urgently needing food supplies from the seas. During the conference, Japan admitted in a surprisingly unveiled manner that this whaling has commercial aspects. The proposal for a quota did not receive support during the discussion and was deferred to the next IWC conference in 2018.

OceanCare is represented at the IWC conference in Slovenia by Nicolas Entrup and Fabienne McLellan, who frequently blog about their experiences at the conference at oceancare.org/blog