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June 22, 2010

IWC 2010: Day 2 Dispatch

Science, the silver lining at Agadir

Humane Society International

  • A baby grey whale surfaces. Jo Crebbin/iStockphoto

by Bernard Unti

Mass strandings of whales and dolphins in the United Kingdom, Madagascar, Senegal, and Japan in 2008. A dead bowhead whale stuck to the bow of an Exxon tanker in the Port of Valdez in 2009. Five gray whales beached along the coast of the Northwest United States in spring 2010. A multi-year die-off of baby right whales in the waters along Argentina's coast, over 300 animals since 2005. And just recently, a dead sperm whale found floating just seventy miles from the massive Gulf Coast oil spill.

These are just a few of the many whale deaths worldwide that have no direct connection to whaling, and taken as a whole, they make a compelling case that the mechanisms of worldwide management and conservation of whales must be expanded to account for an extraordinary range of threats to whale and other marine mammals in the 21st century.

If there is any sign of a future competency in this arena within the IWC, it lies with the work of the Scientific Committee, whose members meet for several weeks before the start of the IWC annual meeting. The work of the Scientific Committee at IWC 62 is a bright spot on an otherwise blighted horizon. Science plays a supremely important role in our understanding of whales and the many threats to their conservation worldwide, and in this area at least the IWC has achieved a high degree of functionality and professionalism.

A broad remit

The government, academic, and non-governmental organization scientists who comprise the Scientific Committee have a busy agenda all year round, one reflected in the final report issued on the eve of the IWC’s opening session. They focus on ecosystem modeling and other approaches to the estimation of whale stocks, threat assessments of mortality from bycatch, toxic pollution, ship strike, entanglement, acoustic sources, marine renewable energy devices, and other factors, and the regulation of aboriginal whaling and the whale watching industry, among other topics. This year’s report, with its annexes, exceeds 100 pages in length, and draws on a broad range of scientific literature and expertise.

Science that informs policy

With the Gulf of Mexico oil spill dominating public attention worldwide (the latest figures show that 783 birds, 353 turtles and 41 mammals have died), the Scientific Committee commended the organizations and agencies working to respond to animals’ needs, and called upon governments in the region to take exhaustive steps to gather as much information as possible to assess impacts and to anticipate the challenges of oil spills in the future. More importantly, the Committee called for governments with ongoing or planned offshore energy development projects to carry out baseline studies before locating oil and gas rigs and before such work begins, as part of comprehensive environmental assessments to inform management decisions, and to establish contingency planning and training for emergency response.

The Committee also devoted its attention to ongoing seismic surveys in the vicinity of Sakhalin Island, Russia, commending the work of scientists on the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel of the IUCN, who believe that oil and gas exploration work is threatening the critically endangered western gray whale in its main annual feeding area off the northeastern coast of that island. Several years ago, scientists found a large decrease in the number of whales in the shoreline feeding area during a period of loud and sustained industrial activity, including a seismic survey. Such disturbance has significant implications for the reproductive success of the whales, of which there are just 130 left (of whom just 25 are breeding females).

Committee members knowledgeable about Alaska noted that if an oil spill like Deepwater Horizon happened in its waters, the impacts would be much worse. Weather conditions and temperature differences would make it difficult to work (e.g., getting booms out or skimming oil); oil would accumulate under ice, affecting under-ice algae (the basis of the Arctic food chain); and the region would for the most part be inaccessible to emergency response equipment, vessels, and teams.

There were also a number of important developments in the work of the Scientific Committee’s Small Cetaceans Subcommittee. Australia has injected a half million dollars into this fund, which has greatly reinvigorated it. Affiliated scientists reported progress in their efforts to learn more about priority concerns in western Africa, including such topics as shark finning operations and other fisheries using small cetaceans as bait; a few directed small cetacean hunts, the consumption of small cetaceans as “aquatic bush meat,” live captures of bottlenose dolphins (and other species) for captive display; and the relationship between directed takes and declining regional fisheries (a depletion in which European fishing operations play a major role).

Science and politics at the IWC

In a forum where the science of politics is corrupted by vote buying and the interests of whaling have generated a contentious politics of science, the work of the Scientific Committee is a harbinger of the frontiers that this troubled body might one day begin to explore more fully. When that day comes, it won’t be a moment too soon for whales and other cetaceans.

Bernard Unti, Ph.D, is senior policy adviser and special assistant to the CEO/President of The Humane Society of the United States, and a Humane Society International delegate to the IWC.