The Southern Ocean Sanctuary

The Southern Ocean Sanctuary was adopted by the International Whaling Commission in 1994 to provide long-term protection for around three-quarters of the world's remaining whales by protecting their feeding grounds.

Once heavily hunted for whales, the sanctuary allows for the natural restoration of this ecosystem and its many inhabitants. The reprieve is necessary — some whale populations are just a fraction of what they were before commercial whaling began in this region. For example, of the more than 250,000 that used to occupy these waters, only about 5,000 to 10,000 blue whales remain.

In a near-unanimous vote, the International Whaling Commission established the Southern Ocean Sanctuary in 1994, protecting the majority of the Southern Ocean below 40°S. Japan was the only dissenting vote.

About the Southern Ocean Sanctuary

The Southern Ocean Sanctuary has a lofty goal — to protect several populations of Southern Hemisphere whales as they migrate through and feed in the region. More broadly, the Sanctuary also aims to contribute to the restoration and protection of the unique and fragile Antarctic marine ecosystem.

Because the Southern and Indian Ocean Sanctuaries are connected, some whales enjoy protection throughout their annual migrations from the Indian Ocean to the Southern Ocean, and back again. Other whale species only venture into the Southern Ocean Sanctuary during certain times of the year, seeking to feed in the cold, nutrient-rich waters.

Restoration of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary

Whales were once a very common marine animal in the Southern Ocean. Now, scientists estimate that less than 5% of the original whale population remains.

Although Japan has cynically suggested that we need to "manage" the minke whales in this region, we are not fooled. What they call "management," we know as hunting. Not only are we opposed to the idea of commercial whaling here — or anywhere — IFAW believes that the best way to help the Southern Ocean Sanctuary's ecosystem recover may be to leave it alone.

We think that a minimum of 50 years of complete protection is needed. This period of time would be a first step in allowing natural restoration of a ravaged ecosystem. Over the years, a new balance between the various species of seal, whale and seabird which have a common food supply would be found. Only then would the remaining populations of great whales be on their way to recovery.

Scientific Work in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary

To ensure the Sanctuary is an effective solution for whale conservation, we need to understand more about this ecosystem and the whales and other creatures that live here.

Since 1996, we have participated in numerous research projects in the Southern Ocean, pioneering new techniques in non-invasive research methods.

  • Our hydrophone listening system was developed by IFAW to listen for whales 24 hours a day. Towed behind boats, it supplies data that can be analysed by specialised computer programmes to identify and track whales.
  • Photo identification databases enable us to track and monitor individual whales throughout their lives. Using computers to do photo matching, we are able to identify whales quickly and easily.

The system is already successfully used in a catalogue of over 3,000 southern right whales breeding close to the Argentine coast and feeding in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. Researchers have been studying this population for over 30 years and now we are able to investigate how changes in the Southern Ocean ecosystem may be affecting the success of breeding whales.

By employing benign research techniques that do not disturb whales we are demonstrating in the clearest possible way that one does not need to kill whales to study them. In fact, over time, such techniques reveal far more about whales in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary than the "scientific" whaling carried out by Japan.