Whaling Commission harpoons science in favour of political compromise

Wednesday, 11 March, 2009

At the conclusion of a three-day meeting, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) today signalled what conservationists see as a dangerous change of course which jeopardises the future of whales.

For several years, the 84-nation intergovernmental Commission has elaborated a detailed scientific procedure (Revised Management Procedure) to ensure all catch limits for any future commercial whaling would be within sustainable limits calculated using tested scientific procedures. 

After an intersessional meeting in Rome, the IWC agreed to shortcut the scientific process and authorise a Small Working Group of member countries to continue developing a package deal of proposals for a resumption of commercial whaling, relying instead on ad-hoc catch limits set for five years at a time, without regard to long-term sustainability. 

The aim is that this deal would be approved by the full IWC at its annual meeting on the Portuguese island of Madeira this June.

Speaking from Rome, Patrick Ramage, IFAW’s Global Whale Programme Director, said: “Science has been thrown to the whalers like Christians to the lions in ancient Rome.”

Currently, whaling for commercial purposes is conducted by IWC members outside IWC control through the exploitation of various loopholes and exemptions. The Japanese fleet catches whales ostensibly for so-called “scientific” purposes, using self-issued permits. 

Conservation-minded IWC members hope that by offering Japan interim, ad hoc, catch allowances for coastal whaling, that will encourage Japan, in turn, to exercise self-restraint in its “scientific whaling” operations. However, conservationists are extremely sceptical that this olive branch will elicit the hoped for response.

In the past five years, the Japanese fleet has harpooned nearly 5,000 fin, sei, sperm, minke and Bryde’s whales in the Antarctic and the North Pacific for supposedly scientific purposes. The Commission’s own Scientific Committee, in a review of the Japanese programme, concluded in 2007 that the scientific questions that the Japanese programme ostensibly set out to answer, such as the natural mortality rate of whales, remain as open as before, despite the killing of thousands of whales.

Mr Ramage added: “The message from the Commission today was forget science, forget sustainability, compromise full steam ahead! The Commission is ignoring ongoing whaling by Iceland and Norway and also their recent resumption of the international trade in whale meat.

“The IWC and its member governments sit fiddling while the scientific and legal regimes designed to conserve whales for future generations go up in flames.”

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