Whaling Commission Authorizes Global Conservation

BERLIN, Germany, June 16, 2003 (ENS) - Conservation of the world's whales will be the future guiding principle of the International Whaling Commission after a vote today that creates a Conservation Committee to protect these marine mammals from the many threats that assail them. Environmentalists were jubilant at the outcome, but whaling nations reserved the right not to participate in, nor fund, the new initiative.

The so-called Berlin Initiative to steer the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the direction of conservation was proposed by Mexico and supported by 18 other governments - Australia, Austria, Brazil, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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Sperm whale and U.S. research ship in the Gulf of Mexico (Photo courtesy U.S. Interior Dept.)
The vote, taken during the opening day of the organization's 55th annual meeting, carried with 25 countries voting in favor, and 20 against, with one abstention.

Australian Environment Minister Dr. David Kemp said after the vote, "The Initiative recognizes that the primary objective of the IWC is to conserve whale populations for the benefit of all humankind and for future generations."

"What was once a whalers' club has become a force for conservation," said Dr. Chris Tuite, director of wildlife and habitat with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“This is a historic day for cetacean conservation,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman, head of WWF’s delegation at the IWC. “The Berlin Initiative is designed to tackle the variety of threats to cetaceans beyond commercial whaling. These include by-catch, drowning in nets, the biggest threat of all, causing the death of 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises annually.”

Other threats include toxic contamination and climate change. The initiative will also allow the IWC to address economic and cultural activities like whale watching.

Stefan Asmundsson, Iceland’s Commissioner, said, “We have witnessed the concept of conservation being hijacked by protectionists. Conservation is a means to enable sustainable whaling. This proposal was not about conservation but protectionism and animal rights."

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A beach on the Antarctic shore of South Georgia strewn with whale bones left from the years of industrial whaling. (Photo courtesy British Antarctic Survey)
In the first 30 years of the International Whaling Commission's existence, large scale catches of whales were authorized, and debates focused on what conservation measures were necessary.

Some whale species, such as the giant blue whales, were hunted nearly to extinction until the IWC imposed a global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The moratorium is still in force, broken only by countries such as Norway and Iceland, each of which have taken a reservation to the whaling ban.

In addition, Japan hunts whales in accordance with the scientific research provisions of the IWC treaty, taking hundreds of minke whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, and hunting hundreds of minke whales, and dozens of sei, sperm, and Bryde's whales in the North Pacific.

"The non-compliance with the Commission’s policy on scientific whaling is now a greater conservation problem than official commercial whaling," the proposing countries said in their draft resolution for the Berlin Initiative.

Dr. Kemp said, "I call on the IWC also to ensure that the Conservation Committee is supported by - and promotes - good science, such as the non-lethal techniques for studying whales that Australian scientists use."

"As the Commission gradually moved to a more conservation oriented and precautionary approach to management, and has steadily extended the scope of its conservation measures, the importance of ensuring that the Commission’s conservation measures are actually complied with, has gathered in importance relative to the adoption of new measures," the proposing countries' wrote.

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On Sunday, Greenpeace activists scaled Berlin's 365 meter (1,197 foot) Television Tower, the Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz, and suspended a large inflatable whale from the tower's point with banner reading "IWC ACT NOW." (Photo ©Greenpeace/Paul Langrock)
Last week Japan threatened to walk out of the IWC meeting if the conservation resolution was passed. While downplaying the new conservation committee's importance, the Japanese delegation so far has remained at the meeting in Berlin.

The Berlin Initiative vote, which was preceded by a heated debate, deepened the divisions within the IWC, taking the organization to the brink of a split.

Established under the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the IWC states its purpose as providing for "the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry." The whaling nations have been working towards completion of a formal document known as a Revised Management Scheme that would establish criteria for sustainable whaling and permit the lifting of the global ban on commercial whaling.

The fact that the Revised Management Scheme is not even on this year's IWC agenda, and today's vote in favor of a conservation committee has turned the whaling nations away from participation in the Whaling Commission.

Rune Frovik, secretary to the High North Alliance, a coalition of whaling nations, said, “It is time for the whaling nations to realize that the Whaling Commission does not have the intention to take up its responsibility and resume the management of sustainable whaling. It is time to look for other alternatives outside of this dysfunctional organization."