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July 22, 2008

Q&A: International Whaling Commission

Humane Society International

Q. What is the current state of whale populations?

A. Several whale populations are indisputably endangered, including western gray whales (eastern gray whales, which are the population of gray whales found on the Pacific coast of North America, are no longer considered endangered), eastern bowhead whales, North Atlantic and Pacific right whales, blue whales, and most humpback whales. All other populations of whales, except most minkes, are of disputed status.

Although the United States, for example, lists all whale species except minkes, eastern grays, and Bryde's (pronounced "broo-dahs") as endangered, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and IUCN don't necessarily agree. Clearly sperm whale populations are severely depleted, while fin, sei, and Bryde's whale populations are depleted in some areas but may not be in others. Southern right whale and western bowhead whale populations are depleted but appear to be recovering; this does not mean that they should no longer be considered endangered, but simply that they are doing much better than their cousins in terms of recovery. Minke populations are generally considered robust, although there is much disagreement regarding abundance estimates. At least one population, near Japan, is agreed by all (even the Japanese) to be severely threatened.

Q. Is whaling illegal?

A. No. The IWC has imposed a moratorium on the hunting of 10 species of whales (blue, bowhead, fin, gray, humpback, minke, pygmy right, right, sei, and sperm), and that moratorium only applies to nations who are members of the IWC and have not formally objected to the ban. Furthermore, those whales may be killed under scientific or aboriginal subsistence permits.

Q. Who objects to the moratorium?

A. The moratorium has been under assault by certain countries for years, Japan, Norway, and Iceland in particular. When the moratorium initially went into effect, Japan and Norway halted their commercial whaling and began killing whales under the provision for scientific whaling. Since 1994, Norway has abandoned the claim of "science" and has openly called its whaling "commercial," which the country is allowed to do because it filed an official objection when the moratorium was first put in place. Iceland originally abided by the moratorium, but quit the IWC in 1992, frustrated that it could not whale commercially. In a controversial move, Iceland was allowed to rejoin in 2002 and file a formal reservation to the moratorium, which allows it to hunt whales for commercial purposes. Meanwhile, both Japan and Iceland continue to kill whales under the guise of scientific research, but sell the meat commercially.

Japan, Norway, and Iceland have threatened to leave the IWC and create their own international whaling organization if the ban on commercial whaling is not lifted in the near future. They exert financial and political pressure on member countries and actively recruit nations to join the IWC that are willing to support their desire to resume commercial hunting.

Q. What can the IWC do to a member that violates the treaty?

A. The IWC is a purely voluntary organization. A nation that wishes to whale need only leave the IWC or—as is the case with Norway—remain a member but ignore the will of the IWC.

Q. What is the best way to protect whales?

A. Australia has made a useful proposition calling for a true global sanctuary for whales. It would protect whales right up to the shoreline of every country. Creation of the sanctuary would provide whales the protection they so desperately need, not just from the years of unabated commercial killing but also from the environmental threats and habitat destruction that is plaguing our oceans. The IWC has done little to address these latter, larger problems primarily because its scientists have had to focus on the health of the whaling industry rather than on the health of whale populations. Establishing a global sanctuary will enable the IWC to refocus its efforts where they are most desperately needed.

A global sanctuary will also benefit whale-watching programs around the world. As of 2000, more than 490 communities in 87 countries (including Japan, Iceland, and Norway) had whale-watching businesses. The total revenue from whale watching more than doubled between 1994 and 1998, and expenditures now total more than $1 billion a year. Whale-watching profits far exceed those from selling whale parts and meat. Unlike whaling, this wealth is shared among all participating coastal communities.