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Whaling commission: What's missing?

Richard Black | 16:31 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010

En route from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Agadir, Morocco:

So the whales have been put to bed for another year; and at Agadir airport, amid all the tanned Europeans making their way back from their beach holidays (well, lobster-red in the case of Brits, obviously) I'm thinking about all the issues that didn't get solved this time.

Whale protestOne of the issues that concerns conservationists most about the IWC is where its competence ends.

For most of the time, its discussions concern just 12 species from the global total of about 90 cetaceans.

(I deliberately leave the number vague because there are always changes of mind about what's a separate species and what isn't, especially in the case of the beaked whales, the most enigmatic branch of the order.)

So it doesn't have a remit, for example, to regulate or even cast much of eye over the Dall's porpoise hunt off the Japanese coast, which accounts for about 15,000 animals each year, with perhaps a further 5,000 taken as bycatch in fishing nets.

Two years ago, the IWC's scientific committee recommended [300KB PDF] that the take be reduced to levels it considered sustainable, and asked for more research on quantifying the population size. But it is unable to mandate either.

The same is true of hunting for species such as beluga, narwhal, pilot whale, and Baird's beaked whale that variously takes place around the Arctic, in Japanese waters, and the Caribbean.

From the standpoint of ecology and conservation, this is absolutely illogical. Small cetaceans are just as capable of being rendered extinct through hunting as big ones, and often inhabit the same ecosystems.

It's also illogical from a territorial point of view. These hunts take place within national waters; but so does most hunting for minke whales, bowheads, humpbacks, gray whales and other species that are under the IWC's explicit aegis.

It stems from history; from the fact that at its inception the IWC was a forum of whale-hunting nations - with Norway and the UK in the vanguard at that particular point - with a remit to conserve commercially important species so there was something to hunt.

Is that appropriate now?

VaquitaMany would say not - and that if they were coming at the issue afresh, governments would either establish a body that encompassed all cetaceans, or one that acted on the high seas only - or (a favoured option of some within the hunting nations) a series of regional organisations analogous to Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) such as the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission.

How much these bodies would be geared towards pure conservation and how much management of hunting they would do depends, of course, on your vision of cetaceans.

As it is, species such as the Dall's porpoise are left without any effective international management.

The same is true, more starkly, of the smallest cetaceans living in rivers or in coastal zones.

The baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, is almost certainly extinct, as we've discussed before on these pages; the IWC's scientific committee report from Agadir [1.7MB PDF] notes that only about 250 vaquita remain, while the Mekong River population of Irrawaddy dolphin numbers less than 100.

But noting the problem and making recommendations are not the same as mandating a solution.

Moves are afoot in certain areas.

One outcome of IWC62 will be a workshop on oil and gas exploration - prompted by the ongoing problems of gray whales around Sakhalin, by long-term concerns about oil exploitation in the Arctic feeding grounds, and more immediately by the Gulf of Mexico oil leak crisis.

Work goes on towards ensuring the whale-watching industry uses approaches that do not disturb the animals being watched, and on evaluating the risks that climate change might pose, for example by reducing the extent of polar sea ice.

The IWC's scientific committee is probably the world's most concentrated gathering of expertise on the issue; and despite the political games that go on when, for example, Japan's scientific whaling programmes is discussed, there's a mass of work centred there that could prove vitally important for whales and their smaller relatives in the future.

But overwhelmingly, the feeling is that its potential is constrained by the politicised wrangling over hunting - as is the potential of the commission itself to turn the committee's recommendations into reality.

The overall conservation picture regarding cetaceans is painted: but the capacity to do anything more than observe the painting and move on is small indeed.

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