Seventy years of wailing, forty years of shepherding and thirty years since the failed 'Irish solution'

Peter Bridgewater

Adjunct Professor in Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Governance Institute of Applied Ecology and Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis

Seventy years of wailing, forty years of shepherding and thirty years since the failed 'Irish solution': The policy vacuum that is the International Whaling Commission (IWC)


Today is the Seventieth birthday of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Membership of the IWC is open to any country in the world that formally adheres to the 1946 International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling – but even a cursory glance at the Convention text would show that its purpose is to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry” (my highlight). Despite a complete re-orientation since the mid-1980’s, that is still the convention’s purpose, and, while any country is free to join, it seems absurd for countries with no especial history in the “whaling industry” to suddenly become involved.  This has been the case with many countries in the east of the EU who were encouraged to join in the mid noughties, including Slovenia, host of the recent IWC meeting.  Greece joined in 2007 but withdrew in 2013, presumably financial pressures proved more important.


Seventy years ago, the policy rationale for the convention and its commission was clear.  Nations that joined in the initial 3 years (Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, UK, USA, (then) USSR) have largely stayed members, although Canada withdrew in 1982, and Brazil, Iceland, Netherlands and Norway have left and re-joined, sometimes on more than one occasion.


During the period 1950 –1980 the IWC, advised by an active and competent scientific committee, saw its role, as directed by the Convention text, to implement polices with respect to the regulation of whaling. To put not too fine a point on it, the main focus of the Commission was to oversee the allocation of quotas for whale species among contracting party governments, following disastrous over-whaling in the first half of the twentieth century through lack of regulation and pure human greed. In the first decade of IWC’s existence the world still saw uses for oils rendered from whale blubber, and in many countries whale meat supplemented terrestrial farming systems run down by the exigencies of World War II. But progressively many countries slowly saw whaling as not especially necessary for their needs or existence, and from the 1970’s increasing environmental and animal welfare concerns, especially among western nations, pressed national governments to adopt policies which put whale species conservation ahead of utilisation. 


By the early 1970’s the allowable catch under IWC was less than 25% of that agreed in 1950, with blue and humpback whales being subject to zero quotas. But while this was clear, and reinforced by deliberations of the IWC scientific committee, pressure from whaling industries and continuing uncertainty over actual population sizes meant the IWC often approved quotas larger than it should. As it was later revealed, the deliberate misreporting of catches of particular species by some countries added further to the poor implementation of the IWC’s rules of procedures.


In 1972 the first global environment gathering took place in Stockholm.  Among the plethora of recommendations, number 33 recommended “member governments of the IWC implement a 10-year moratorium on commercial whaling”. The IWC was very slow to respond, but in the decade that followed catches dropped from over 30,000 to 2,000 by 1982. While this was partly due to reaction from some members of IWC it was also due to whale populations continuing to plummet. And so in 1982 a moratorium was agreed, which came into effect in 1986. Norway, the USSR and Japan all lodged objections to the resolution, but Japan withdrew its objection in 1986.  Despite their objections the USSR and Norway did not resume whaling, and when the USSR was succeeded by the Russian Federation the objection was formally dropped.  Norway, however, has never withdrawn its objection and since 1993 has maintained limited whaling.


Australia was a leader in getting to the moratorium, with the Fraser government opting for a pro-conservation policy, based on increasing conservation concerns for the state of many whale species in the southern ocean, and the lack of need for whale “products”. Like all international actions the moratorium had compromises, which included a review by 1990 of the state of whale stocks, and provision for aboriginal subsistence whaling in Alaska, Greenland, and the Bering Sea coast of Russia.  Canada having withdrawn from IWC in 1982 also maintains coastal whaling of Bowhead whales for Inuit subsistence needs. Bowheads are formally included under aboriginal subsistence needs for Alaskan Inuit, and it is ironic that this whale species is among the most endangered globally.


By 1990 pressure in many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the USA, Netherlands and France had become such that any thought of dismantling the moratorium was anathema. So a policy designed to implement a moratorium then hardened into a “no return to whaling” policy – and essentially no discourse on the matter in the Commission.  In the last quarter century there has been very little movement in the IWC deliberations, save for endless resolutions that Japan should stop its whaling for scientific research. This whaling is perfectly legal under the convention but has offended many countries, and the wider public is always presented with it as an “illegal” act. Overall lack of movement has prevented the final development of a Revised Management System (RMS), which would monitor any existing or future whaling activity.


A potential bright spot in 1994 was the establishment of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. This Sanctuary is not a traditional marine protected area, but rather a no-go zone for whaling to allow stocks to recover. In other words the IWC sees it a management tool, not a conservation measure. Somewhat surprisingly Japan did not block adoption of the Sanctuary, but also predicably took an objection to it, so the practical effect on the whaling for science activities of Japan is zero. There are current attempts to create a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, but establishment of this is blocked at the moment. The real question is of what possible value to whale conservation could it be?  And answer came there none.


Australian policy in the Rudd-Gillard continuum was firstly to see if there was any room for compromise, and secondly to take Japan to court over the scientific whaling matter. Discussions on a possible compromise arose from the so-called Irish solution, proposed by Ireland in 1996-97. This compromise package had 5 main pillars: Adopt the RMS; the moratorium remains but coastal whaling for local consumption allowable if the RMS is satisfied; no international trade in whale products; no further lethal whaling to be undertaken; work on regulation and management of whale-watching globally to be undertaken.  This package needed consensus, and although supported by many was effectively killed by Australia, with support from New Zealand.  Ironically, New Zealand in the early noughties tried to find a policy way to break the deadlock that the IWC had become – but in order so to do some limited coastal whaling by Japan, Iceland and Norway would need to be agreed. But it would also be strongly regulated, as would the aboriginal Subsistence Whaling. However this was still a bridge too far for Australia.


In 2009 the Pew Charitable Trusts organised a Pew Whales Commission in Portugal in the hope of moving a compromise solution forward. The meeting was held in Lisbon, Portugal and had a range of people formerly associated with IWC, some NGOs and other government figures. The government of Portugal, about to take the IWC chair, was keen to support this initiative. While there were some useful contributions, trenchant opposition to any change from former ministers from Australia and New Zealand ensured no progress was made. 


Subsequently in Australia a new policy emerged – to legally challenge Japan’s self-issued permits for scientific whaling.  The case was taken to the International Court of Justice at an extraordinarily cost. The result was a predictable something for everyone – the ICJ upheld Japans rights under the convention, but criticised its rational for scientific research and ordered Japan to recast its programme.  Japan did recast its programme, brought it back through formal channels, and continues to self-issue permits to undertake whaling for scientific purposes. Japan has also stated to the UN that it will no longer be bound by ICJ decisions regarding “any dispute arising out of, concerning, or relating to research on, or conservation, management or exploitation of, living resources of the sea”. The most recent meeting in Slovenia ritually passed a resolution asking Japan to reconsider – business as usual, in other words.


In parallel with government activity, NGO’s both international and national were becoming ever more important in the whaling story. Greenpeace was a leading voice in the 1970’s against whaling, but its co-founder, Paul Watson, left in 1977, feeling that policy advocacy was not achieving results and seeking direct action.  And so Sea Shepherd was born.  There have been a range of incidents, including deliberate sinking of ships, over the years involving Sea Shepherd, and in some countries Watson is branded an “eco-terrorist”. In the last couple of decades, dubiously claiming its actions are legitimised by the World Charter for Nature (an anodyne charter produced by the UN General Assembly in 1980) Sea Shepherd has focussed on stopping Japan scientific whaling. 


Australia has always been in an uncomfortable position with Sea Shepherd, which raises considerable funds and support from the Australian Public, but is clearly little more than a piratical exercise aimed at publicity. Jabour and Bergin in a piece on November 23 in The Australian put the dilemma nicely in their title “Close ports to Sea Shepherd or risk sharing guilt for its vigilantism". Public endorsements and board memberships from persons such as ex-Environment minister Ian Campbell and former greens Leader Dr Bob Brown endow Sea shepherd’s actions with a rosy glow they certainly don’t deserve. And Australia continues to be embarrassed by the actions of this group, while unable to make any progress on the policy front.

So, is there a policy framework that would make sense? There is, but it’s uncomfortable for Australian Ministers who continually focus on scientific whaling rather than trying to solve the whole equation. The Irish solution needs revisiting, to take account of the new century, and the efforts since 1997.  Australia could lead the world by developing and promoting a 10-point whale’s policy which would include:


  • Rapid finalisation and adoption in the IWC of the Revised Management Strategy;
  • Continuing to argue for the animal welfare issues associated with whaling, and not confounding those issues with ones of conservation;
  • Accepting that cultural differences regarding whaling exist, and work to respect those differences;
  • Use of the RMS to regulate aboriginal subsistence whaling, and any possible coastal whaling, while keeping the catch limit for all other forms of whaling at zero;
  • Upgrading the Australian-led Southern Ocean Research Programme to significantly increase data obtained through it, and welcoming Japan as a key participant;
  • Refocusing the IWC Scientific Committee’s work to prioritise climate change effects, scenario development of whale population changes, and link between whale population size and other elements of marine ecosystems;
  • Working in the IWC to change the focus and nature of the convention text to reflect C21st realities;
  • Use IWC to discuss and regulate whale tourism and other issues that can impact whale populations;
  • Undertake specific work on the effect of ocean noise on whale behaviour;
  • Work cooperatively to understand the nature, rate and avoidance mechanisms needed to reduce ship strikes on whales and other cetaceans.


So could this happen? Yes, but it needs brave steps so to do, and a re-education of the public who have been fed misinformation on whales and whaling for decades. We need to celebrate the successes of Australia’s past policies, but recognise that they are just that, past policies. And just maybe the IWC does have a useful future, instead of resembling a poorly supervised primary school yard at recess time.


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