International Whaling Commission 2011 annual meeting assessment

By John Dean - 21 Jul 2011 14:9:0 GMT
International Whaling Commission 2011 annual meeting assessment

Now that the dust has settled after the recent annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), it is possible to assess the outcome and see who the winners and losers are.

The biggest losers do appear to be the whales of the Southern Atlantic ocean.

Among organisations expressing concern at the Commission's failure to create a whale sanctuary in the area is Greenpeace, which opposes commercial whaling and expressed anger at the breakdown of negotiations. The proposal sponsored by Brazil and Argentina was for the creation of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary but to establish one the Commission needs an amendment to its Schedule of Convention, which requires a three-quarters majority. With no agreement forthcoming, the item was left open until the 2012 Annual Meeting.

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Willie Mackenzie said: "Instead of the historic creation of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, which is backed by most member countries, the impasse created by pro-whaling nations has caused this IWC meeting to end in acrimony. Latin American countries have waited a decade for this sanctuary, that has once again been blocked due to Japan and its allies."

"While petty politics continue to prevent progress, no concerted international action can be taken by the IWC to conserve the world's endangered whale populations."

Greenpeace were happier that the IWC adopted new rules governing payments to members. The measures, put forward by seventeen EU countries, remove the ability of governments to pay dues in cash at meetings, a practice widely condemned by many Commission members and non-governmental organisations because it is not transparent and could allow abuse such as vote buying. The changes require that financial payments to the IWC be made by bank transfer from an account belonging to the Government in question, which allows the money to be more easily tracked and processed.

Willie Mackenzie said: "This will, hopefully, mean a new era of transparency for the Commission. The move to ban cash payments means that at last the International Whaling Commission can be dragged into the 21st Century and will make it difficult for pro-whaling nations to buy votes. This is the first welcome step towards the IWC functioning as an organisation that works for the whales, and not the whalers."

And Wendy Elliott, Head of Delegation for environmental group WWF, said: "Although whales were hardly mentioned in the deliberations, it was a great day for them. These long overdue reforms help bring the IWC up to date with procedures that are already common in other international bodies. This is a small step in the right direction; it is now time to redirect focus toward conserving cetacean species that are in grave risk."

WWF, which has concerns about whaling levels, also cites offshore development as another threat; fewer than 130 Western North Pacific gray whales remain but WWF says that offshore oil and gas projects near their feeding grounds are continually expanding.

The IWC reflected those concerns with its Scientific Committee at the conference recommending that companies do more to protect the remaining whales.

Also, the Russian Government recently imposed a regulation to protect endangered Western gray whales by calling on oil exploration companies working in its waters to conduct activities only from late November to late May, when the whales are away from their summer feeding grounds.

Also causing concerns is the world's smallest cetacean, the vaquita, of which just 245 remain, largely down to entanglement in gillnets which prevent the animals from coming to the surface to breath. Entanglement in fishing gear kills 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises a year and WWF wants to see more done to prevent such deaths.

Wendy Elliott, of WWF, said: "In the 21st Century, the world's oceans are in crisis. Oil and gas operations, shipping, and irresponsible fishing are decimating several whale and dolphin species. The IWC must become more effective in dealing with vast number of threats to whales in our oceans and seas."

In response to the concerns, the IWC Strikes Working Group has suggested measures including speed reductions and alternative route planning which would, it says, cut the number of collisions between ships and whales.

As for other species, the Commission's Scientific Committee reported that, in the light of the decline in Antarctic minke whales between the late 1980s and the turn of the century, it was investigating to what extent changes in ice conditions were to blame.

The Committee also said that it has been researching humpback numbers off West Africa. Heavily reduced by whaling, numbers reached a low of less than 2,000 animals in the 1960s, but are now up to almost 10,000 animals. Researchers will next look at breeding stocks off eastern Australia and the central south Pacific. Humpback whales off eastern Australia are increasing at around 11% annually.

The Committee also said that blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere are increasing at 6.5% per year.

When it came to Southern Hemisphere right whales, a survey of the population along the coast of southern Australia showed them increasing at 7% per year since 1993, now numbering 3,500 animals.

The researchers expressed concern that ship strikes and entanglements were a threat to the endangered western North Atlantic right whale population which numbers 300-400 animals. Five deaths and four entanglement cases were reported off the US coast between November 2009 and October 2010.

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