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What Will Happen At IWC This Year?

The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (the body consisting of over 80 nations that regulates whaling) will take place between (2-6th July) in Panama. The battles between the pro-whaling and anti-whaling nations at previous meetings have thrown up some complex, detailed and heated debates, and some commentators are predicting that the enforced clear up of IWC practices voted through at last year’s meeting in Jersey will mean that this year’s gathering may define the future of the IWC.

Here we highlight some of the issues that are set to dominate this year’s meeting.

1. The quorum issue – unfinished business

At last year’s IWC annual meeting (2011), a discussion concerning proposals by Brazil and Argentina to create a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic came to an end without agreement. So, the IWC Chair asked that this be put to a vote. Japan, the other whaling nations and representatives from 20 other governments demanded that the sanctuary should only be agreed by consensus and not by a vote, and, unable to convince the meeting of their views,  they all walked out of the meeting room to prevent a vote from taking place.

It then became clear that the exact number of parties needing to be present in the room to carry on with the meeting and to vote on this issue (a quorum) was not obvious. After a nine-hour Private Commissioners’ meeting discussing what constituted a quorum and whether it had been broken by the walk-out, the Commission could not come to a decision and so agreed to end the IWC meeting, discuss the sanctuary at the next annual meeting and to create a working group to look into the issues relating to a quorum.

IWC ‘Rule of Procedure B 1’ currently defines a quorum as “Attendance by a majority of the members of the Commission”.  WDCS believes therefore that the quorum was set, that the vote should have gone ahead in Jersey regardless of the walkout, and that poor management from the Chair was responsible for causing confusion in the meeting. 

WDCS position on the issue of quorum

WDCS believes that a clearer definition of the IWC rules needs to be created along the lines of similar conventions such as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) which defines a quorum as one half of the Parties present at the meeting being in the meeting room to vote.

There should be no loopholes. When a daily session at the IWC starts the quorum should be determined and it is then established for the complete session irrespective of the comings and goings of any Commissioners.

2. The South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (SAWS) – Will the proposal be passed this year?

The South Atlantic Sanctuary would promote conservation efforts aimed at protecting the 52 species of cetaceans in the region, establishing a management plan against hazards such as climate change and pollution, and encourage non-lethal economic activities such as whale watching.

As mentioned above, the move to create the Sanctuary by putting it to the vote at the previous IWC meeting in 2011 resulted in a walk out by the pro whaling nations and the sanctuary was shelved until IWC members meet again in a few weeks’ time.

The idea of a sanctuary in the South Atlantic is not a new one. It has been proposed at previous IWC meetings and was originally submitted by Brazil and Argentina in 2001. In 2012, the SAWS Proposal will again be presented by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (countries that are part of what is called the Buenos Aries Group).

For the establishment of the SAWS, a ¾ majority of the IWC is needed; however the Buenos Aires Group hopes this proposal will be agreed by consensus.

WDCS position

WDCS has supported this proposal since 2001 and encourages all IWC member countries to support it.

Since this proposal was presented in 2001, the proponents have worked on the original proposal and made all the changes that were asked of them. It is unbelievable that the whaling countries are using this 11 year old proposal as a tool of negotiation to try and trade its achievement for their own demands for commercial whaling.


3. Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) – Is it commercial whaling in disguise?

ASW catch limits will be up for renewal at IWC64.  All proposals except Greenland’s seek a renewal of existing catch limits; but Greenland seeks an increase.

The recent Greenlandic proposals have proved controversial, and this one is no different.

At the last IWC meeting in 2011, the Commission agreed – by consensus– to establish a small ad hoc ASW Working Group to address unresolved issues connected to ASW. The Group is tasked with making recommendations  for consideration at this year’s meeting.  The Working Group is composed of representatives of the USA, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Russian Federation, Denmark/ Greenland, Japan, Austria and Argentina, plus two members of the IWC Scientific Committee and a member of the IWC Secretariat (the IWC head of science).

A review of all of previous decisions and management measures with respect to ASW adopted by the IWC have been provided to the Group.

WDCS position

WDCS opposes all types of whaling and whilst we respect the different cultural attitudes of aboriginal people towards whales, we would encourage governments to reduce and eventually end ASW hunts.

WDCS has concerns about several of the ASW hunts. Specifically:

We opposed, and continue to oppose, Greenland’s humpback whale quota on the basis that;

  • Greenland has not substantiated a nutritional need for additional whale meat
  • Concerns exist regarding the management of the hunt and the extensive commercialisation of whale products, including sale to tourists.

This has been exposed in WDCS’s latest undercover operation in Greenland, which clearly shows whale meat on sale to tourists in restaurant in Greenland.

In addition, we do not believe that Greenland needs the additional fin whales sought; it has only taken 62% of its fin whale quota since 2002. We assume that the request for additional fin whales will be dropped in exchange for the one additional humpback whale sought, even though the net increase in meat will be smaller.

We oppose the renewal of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG’s) quota;

  • the humpback whale hunt in Bequia is not conducted by aboriginal people,
  • it does not have a long and unbroken history as a subsistence hunt (for decades after its inception in 1875 it remained a primarily commercial whaling operation focused mainly on oil),
  • there do not appear to be strong longstanding cultural traditions associated with the hunt and the distribution of the whale products
  • there is no pressing nutritional need for humpback whale meat in Bequia,
  • the hunting techniques are inhumane and result in a high proportion of whales struck but then not recovered,
  • SVG also has a very poor record of providing data and samples needed by the IWC, including Needs Statements

The length of any future ASW quotas – 10 long years?

The IWC is currently considering staging meetings every two years. If this is agreed at IWC64, then a period of either four or six-years before quotas face renewal will need to be recommended to replace the existing five-year period. However, some ASW countries want to establish up to a ten-year period for block quotas.

WDCS position

WDCS strongly opposes this proposal because:

  • there is a need to regularly evaluate the hunted populations to ensure their survival
  • whales also face a growing number of other threats, not just from hunting (including climate change, marine pollution in all its forms including noise, bycatch, prey depletion etc.)

A ten-year period is far too long between quota setting where quota adjustments are designed to ensure that hunting is not having a harmful effect on a species or populations. 

4. The main whaling nations – background, facts and figures


When the International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed in 1982 to prohibit all commercial whaling from the 1986/7 whaling season, Iceland did not make a formal objection to this decision – as other commercial whaling countries did.

After the moratorium took effect, Iceland continued a small “scientific whaling” programme and killed some 60 whales per year until 1989. It then left the IWC in 1992. Iceland re-joined in 2002 with a legally disputed reservation against the moratorium.


Japan continues to kill whales and sell the meat from its hunts, despite the ban (moratorium) on commercial whaling. By doing so, Japan uses a loophole in the treaty of the IWC, which only allows whaling for scientific research.

Japan has now submitted a proposal for a catch quota, that is not specified, from the Okhotsk Sea- West Pacific stock.

If this proposal were successful it would violate the moratorium and establish a new category of whaling which would blur the distinctions between commercial whaling and aboriginal whaling.

Japan also allocates itself a quota of 50 humpbacks, but has never taken these in this hunt. It continues to use the threat of taking humpbacks as a bargaining chip at the IWC.


Norway hunts under an ‘objection’ to the IWC’s moratorium on commercial whaling. Despite declining sales, government subsidies continue to keep this activity afloat.

Last year the number of Norwegian vessels actively hunting whales was just 19 – compared with 33 in 2001. 

5. The Conservation Agenda – thankfully it’s not all about whaling

In 2003 the IWC founded the Conservation Committee (CC). The Committee developed a conservation agenda and developed several areas of work. This year the IWC will discuss a five-year strategic plan on Whale Watching, a very import issue for WDCS.

We also need to maintain the important conservation-orientated work being conducted through the IWC’s Scientific Committee. This includes an expanding programme of work dealing with environmental threats including climate change, and marine noise and chemical pollution. The Scientific Committee also provides an important annual update on environmental threats in its State of the Conservation Environment Report (SOCER). Environmental issues that will be looked at in detail this year will include, in particular, a workshop on the development of marine renewables at sea, the latest work on defining critical habitat and the ongoing programme of work on marine debris. All of these initiatives need the support of the Commission and contracting governments.