"A prediction" by Sidney Holt

I had a sleepless night – worrying. You see, I think that if the Chairmens’ proposed deal, or anything like it (The US Commissioner, Monica Medina, thinks it just needs tweaking to make it OK), is adopted that signals the end of the IWC and of efforts by many people through forty years to make it work for conservation and the welfare of whales instead of merely for the relict whaling industry.  What is happening is a loss of both history and vision.

Let’s have a quick look at history. For a quarter of a century the IWC staggered along, without benefit of scientific advice about sustainable catch limits, while at first Norway and the UK, then the USSR and Japan mined all the baleen whales of the southern hemisphere except the “little” minke until just tiny remnants of all their populations were left. They were also on the way to the same fate for the sperm whale. Thus was a set of the globe’s biggest living marine resources virtually destroyed. At the turn of the 1960s-1960s the British and US Governments, with the support of an eminent scientist on the Norwegian delegation, Johan Ruud, took the lead in trying to halt this disastrous trajectory by commissioning scientific advice and forging agreement that the Commission would act upon it. A deadline for that was set –not later than 1964 – and as that approached the Government of Japan said it was now not ready to act on it.

At the turn of the 1960s-1970s a new vision appeared, centred on the UN Conferene on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972.  “The Whale” was the prime symbol of that gathering, and the Canadian businessman and diplomat Maurice Strong, who had been appointed by the UN Secretary-General to run the conference and later was the first Executive-Secretary of UNEP, spoke in the streets beside a life-size model of a sperm whale. That year a remarkable anthology of writing about whales and illustrating them was published – Mind in the Waters – by Ms Joan McIntyre; this reverberated through the early 1970s. The media focus in Stockholm was on a proposed ten-year pause in commercial whaling – a moratorium – but three other things were going on. One was a search by whalers, led by Australia, for a means of countering pressure for a pause by devising new rules for managing whaling, the second was a move for a vast increase in scientific research on and related to whales and dolphins. And the third was the decision by Japan and the USSR to begin mining the last remaining rorqual whale in the southern hemisphere – the minke.

A huge boost to these activities was given by the creation in the US, in 1970 by President Nixon, of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the appointment to it of an eminent oceanographer, Dr Robert White, as its first Administrator and his designation by the President as the US Commissioner to the IWC. Apart from proposing, several times, that the IWC adopt the moratorium sought by the UN, White and his successors presented a draft of text of a new convention – for an International Cetacean Organisation – but with no success, through the 1970s.           ‘

The research effort was formulated by the IWC as the first of what became a series of International Decades of Cetacean Research (IDCRs). Begun with good intellectual intentions the IDCRs were quickly utterly perverted, being  practically reduced to Japanese and, in the first years, Russian whaling vessels counting minke whales  in order to conform with new ideas about managing continued whaling. More interesting research on cetaceans and the ecosystems of which they were important elements was conducted almost entirely outside the purview of the IWC. In the mid-1970s several important international events were conducted, with some recognition by the IWC: a huge gathering of artists of all kinds, photographers, writers, poets, musicians, scientists, politicians in Bloomington, Indiana, which seemed to be a real-life expansion of Ms McIntyre’s book; a conference in Boston, Mass., entitled Whales Alive, with sessions on whale-watching, new non-lethal research methods, cetacean communication, the practice of keeping cetaceans in aquaria. This had a profound effect but ideas coming from it were squashed when brought to the attention of the IWC, principally through the actions of the US Commissioner at the time, who was also a consultant to the SeaWorld corporation (and is now one of the six signatories of a letter to the present IWC Chairman urging adoption of the deal/scam); two back-to-back conferences in Washington DC about cetacean behaviour and intelligence, and ethical issues connected with whaling and other “uses” of cetaceans; the output from those was likewise squashed. In 1976 FAO and UNEP convened a scientific consultation in Bergen, Norway, as the culmination of  three years work by several hundred scientists to review what was known about all the cetaceans as well as other marine mammals.

By the end of the decade, while exploitation of all the baleen whales in the southern hemisphere except the minke had been prohibited because of their deplorable conservation status it was clear that the new management procedures were not adequate for dealing with the impoverished data for most whale populations in the northern hemisphere, as well as with minke whales everywhere. But the new vision, of 1972, has persisted and focused Thus the time was ripe for renewed efforts to bring about a prolonged pause in commercial whaling, both to allow another effort to invent a valid management procedure, and to give time for at least partial recovery of the depleted populations of large whales in the southern hemisphere and the North Pacific. This succeeded in 1982. While work on the revision of the management rules proceeded through the 1980s and into the 1990s, still no serious attempt was made to study the whales that fed in the Antarctic, except for the minke, now the only target of Japanese pelagic whalers. Yet during this period whale-watching as an industry was growing world-wide and ways of studying live whales (and photographing them) were improving enormously.  The global changes in public attitudes to whales, no longer practically limited to North America and Europe, as well as concerns for preserving the remaining relatively pristine ecosystems of the planet, especially Antarctica, and the increase in other threats to the well-being of whales by human activities, such as marine pollution, habitat destruction and so on, created the conditions where stronger decisions for long term conservation than merely setting zero catch limits would find support. These led to the acceptance by the IWC, in 1994, of a proposal by France to declare the entire Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary..

However, from the mid-1990s, determined to prevent any further conservation measures being adopted the Government of Japan began to bring in to the IWC new Member States, using inducements such as fisheries aid programmes and paying the expenses of delegates, and various false but persuasive arguments such as that fish consumption by whales damages commercial fisheries. This so-called Vote Consolidation Programme was so successful in creating the necessary blocking one-fourth vote to impede further conservation actions – such as the proposed declaration of whale sanctuaries in the South Pacific and South Atlantic – that the VCP was intensified in an effort – that nearly also succeeded – to obtain a simple majority under Japan’s control. During this period, until the mid-2000s, there were intensive, but ultimately failed, efforts to get agreement within the IWC on stringent  instruments for ensuring compliance with regulations should eventually the 1982 zero-catch-limit decision be modified (at least for application outside sanctuaries) and controlled commercial whaling be resumed. The breakdown of these negotiations encouraged Japan and it sallies to begin to describe the IWC as a dysfunctional body.

Thus we come to the present “deal” proposed by the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Commission following nearly two years of mostly closed negotiations orchestrated by the previous Chair of the Commission, the US Commissioner. The terms of the proposal are such as to allow the negation of practically all the conservation gains I have outlined above, not by formally amending them but by using slippery, òegalistic language to circumvent them. The core argument is that such a deal would put limits on what is now unregulated whaling and would reduce total catches, through a ten-year period. Arguments about this have revealed what is practically an obsession by the proponents of the deal with the total numbers of whales to be killed, with a theoretical reduction from the current total catches.  In this process the whaling countries have increased their self-awarded quotas to far above what they have in fact been catching in recent years – a rather obvious precursor to haggling; the IWC has been virtually turned into a whale.meat market.

With this background I hope it becomes obvious why this process is destructive of the IWC as a serious inter-governmental organisation, beginning with the virtual abandonment of the idea of science-based regulations, the setting of catch limits for ten years that it will in practice been practically impossible to change even if it turns out that they are too high, and a group of formally illegal actions such as to seek to deny sovereign nations other than the present three whalers – Japan, Iceland, Norway – entry to the whaling business. The significance of the numbers-obsession is important in this respect. It is one thing to discuss the numbers of a particular species that might be killed in a particular region, in terms of its conservation status and population dynamics; it is quite another, and nonsensical, to discuss the better or worse of a total global number comprised of several completely different species. What matters to the industry is not numbers but commodities, and a fin whale, for example, yields nearly ten times as much meat and other products as a minke whale. The deal, as at present formulated, would allow the killing of fins as well as minkes in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, and award Iceland a large number of fin whales.. The outcome, if this were to be agreed and implemented, would be for Iceland to become the major supplier of whale meat to be consumed in Japan, more in fact that Japanese and Norwegian production together!
These outcomes would be extremely regressive but not in themselves grounds for claiming the demise of the IWC. But, especially when combined with a proposal that the IWC meets only every two years instead of annually, they strongly reduce the incentive for states to stay as Members of the IWC and participate fully in its activities. Those that would stay, one must presume, would be the three whaling nations, some of their allies and clients – to ensure that they retain a blocking vote in the Commission meetings - and some of the richer countries that were once whalers and negotiated the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1946. Since no binding decisions are likely to be taken during the ten-year period envisaged for “stability” there would be little reason for most countries to continue to pay membership fees and the costs of sending delegations to meetings. The IWC would become a mere talking shop, and these days most Governments have better things to do with their money – including, one would hope, funding research. The IWC would not die – the whaling nations would wish to keep it in being to demonstrate, if nothing else, their conformity with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which requires that whales, as legally Highly Migratory Species, be conserved, and their exploitation – if any – regulated through an appropriate inter-governmental organization – and the IWC is unique in that respect.

The status quo of unregulated whaling, continuing only while it is marginally profitable or meeting nationalistic presumptions is far preferable to the continuation of an illusion of international order. The issue will probably be resolved soon enough through economic forces (limitations of demand for whale meat, continuing restrictions on international trade, reluctance of authorities to continue to subsidise a moribund industry) and by actions outside the IWC – of which obstructionism by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is currently the most notorious, but which has been greatly boosted by the announcement today that Greenpeace has persuaded many large shipping and air-freight companies not to tranport whale products. My only concern is that whales, stupid as they are – not of high intelligence as some of my friends think – keep reproducing, and so might inadvertently make themselves hugely profitable again in another decade or so, ripe for a new mining industry.

ps  Mark Simmonds (WDCS) and I have just begun to circulate a letter that we hope will be signed by many scientists, especially those outside the IWC orbit, calling for rejection of the“deal” because it sidelines real science.