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A sperm whale mother and calf pair swims close to shore off the southern coast of Crete in Greece. For the first time, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) - a body created in 1946 to regulate commercial whaling, established a Conservation Committee to consider the numerous and expanding threats cetaceans face today.
Photo : Chris Johnson

August 10, 2004
International Whaling Commission Meeting 2004 - Sorrento, Italy
Real Audio Report
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Mediterranean Sea.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is a global organization consisting of about 50 member nations. It was originally established in 1946 with a mandate to control commercial whaling. Attempts to reverse the trend in drastically declining whale stocks failed. It took a further forty years and mounting pressure from the public for the IWC to finally take a decisive step in 1986 when an indefinite moratorium on commercial whaling was imposed, followed by the establishment of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in 1994.

Japan, Norway and Iceland have killed over 15,000 whales since 1986 in defiance of the ban and are poised to kill about 1,400 whales this year alone. These pro-whaling countries are pushing for a resumption of full-scale commercial whaling and an end to the moratorium. The fight between pro and anti-whaling nations continues.

Japan currently hunts whales under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) that allows the issuance of special permits for the taking of whales for scientific research. Japanese whaling interests sell the meat of whales killed for so called 'scientific purposes', for profit.

The Japanese Government currently permits the killing of Minke, sperm, sei and Bryde's whales despite repeated calls by the IWC Scientific Committee to refrain, as well as a resolution affirming that the research "does not address critically important research needs for the management of whaling."

Since the establishment of the IWC over half a century ago, the threats to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) have expanded and diversified in ways that few envisaged, highlighting the need for a shift in focus of the IWC. Today, the numerous threats to cetaceans include by-catch and entanglement in fishing gear, prey depletion through over fishing, manmade ocean noise (including shipping, seismic and navy sonar testing), ship strikes, habitat degradation, the effects of climate change, the accumulation of high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP's) and whaling.

At the 2003 meeting in Berlin, the IWC made an historic decision to broaden its scope beyond the attempted control of whaling to include conservation initiatives that consider the full range of threats facing cetaceans today. Thus, the 'Berlin Initiative' was adopted with 25 votes in favor and twenty against.

Bycatch and entanglement in fishing gear claim the lives of an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises annually. This dolphin drowned and had its dorsal fin and tail flukes severed when entangled in the tough monofilament line of a driftnet in Italy.
Photo : Courtesy of Barbara Mussi - DELPHIS Mediterranean Dolphin Conservation - Island of Ischia, ITALY

This year's meeting of the IWC was held last month in Sorrento, Italy. It is the first year the new Conservation Committee met to consider the expanded list of threats. This collaborative approach brought together the international community to address global threats to dwindling whale populations. Dr. Roger Payne and current R/V Odyssey Chief Scientist Dr. Simone Panigada attended the Scientific Committee meetings. For the first time the IWC Environmental Concerns Subcommittee focused its attention on anthropogenic noise and organized a symposium with some of the world's leading experts in acoustics. Particular attention was dedicated to seismic surveys, whose long and short-term effects are not known and described. The subcommittee has agreed to organize a dedicated workshop on seismic surveys during the 2006 IWC meeting.

A few days after the conclusion of this year's meeting, we spoke with Italy's Alternate Commissioner and respected whale biologist Dr Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara - a Marine Biologist working for the Mediterranean based Tethys Research Institute whose main area of interest is in the conservation ecology of cetaceans. Dr. Notarbartolo di Sciara seems cautiously optimistic about the new conservation focus of the IWC.

Dr Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara - Tethys Research Institute Milan, Italy.

    "It certainly is being taken seriously by part of the members of the Commission, namely the like-minded. The problem that we had to face this year is we had to convince the other parties, the whaling countries that they are welcome to cooperate with us on the Conservation Committee. What happened this year was we were able to have Iceland, Norway and Denmark join the meeting of the Committee, unfortunately Japan and many other countries that respond to Japan did not, and we hope to be able to consolidate next year what we did this year and start doing some serious work."

Genevieve Johnson:

Dr. Notarbartolo di Sciara is concerned that the growing number of pro-whaling nations may attempt to prevent the establishment of effective, long-term conservation measures.

    "I am afraid it all depends I suppose on what Japan will do. The problem is Japan continues to involve small member states in the developing world and all of these (members) will help Japan block conservation initiatives in the future. The like-minded action of soliciting like-minded member States to join the IWC because of shared values also proceeds (on the anti-whaling front), but we may not be able to stem the tide of Japan and whenever that happens, Japan will have the upper hand in deciding what is going to happen in the IWC."

Genevieve Johnson:

Anti-whaling nations fear Japan's 'vote buying' strategies will mobilize a pro-whaling position in the IWC. Under the Japanese program, new IWC members from Africa, the Caribbean and the South Pacific were recruited to vote with Japan in the IWC in return for development assistance and fisheries aid, threatening 30 years of whale conservation. This vote buying has resulted in a 'whalers bloc'.

Binding IWC decisions require a majority of three-quarters of the vote. Japan assembled enough support to ensure at least a one-quarter blocking vote. For example, although it would take a three-quarters majority in opposition to the sanctuary for it to be abolished, the concern is Japan will mobilize a 'bloc' of countries to oppose its continuation effectively preventing the IWC from taking further conservation decisions.

In the weeks before the Sorrento meeting, Cote d'Ivoire, Mauritania, Surinam and Tuvalu all joined the IWC in support of Japan.

Japan has threatened to leave the IWC altogether if no amicable compromise on commercial whaling is reached, citing the IWC's original creation as a whaling management body. In an effort to break the stalemate, the IWC is considering a Revised Management Scheme (RMS) - a strictly controlled quota system for commercial whaling. Starting this process may reopen commercial whaling within the next few years.

Manmade noise including shipping, seismic and navy sonar testing as well as ship strikes pose a significant threat to cetaceans. A few days ago the Odyssey crew radioed a ferry on a collision course with a social group of six sperm whales off the coast of Peloponisos. The ferry changed course, narrowly missing the whales seen blowing in the foreground.
Photo : Chris Johnson

The RMS is set to fatally divide the anti-whaling nations between those that adamantly oppose commercial whaling of any type, such as Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain, and those who are willing to compromise to a small extent with Japan, such as Italy, Holland, Spain, Sweden and now the United States, in order to maintain what they believe will control and minimize whaling.

Dr. Notarbartolo di Sciara explains -

    "This is the big danger that we are facing now because if we are divided we are going to be much less effective in our policies. In fact the adoption of the Revised Management Scheme (RMS) may be a divisive issue and it almost was such in Sorrento last month. I think at this stage we cannot really stay away from working at an RMS, because if there is whaling, and right now there is even during a moratorium, then it is probably better to have it controlled under a very transparent and well regulated scheme than the way it is now.

Genevieve Johnson:

Of course countries like Italy that are opposed to the resumption of commercial whaling are in difficulty because we would like to see commercial whaling disappear, but if commercial whaling is to stay with us, I think it is better to have it with the RMS."

At this year's meeting in Italy, there was pressure for the entire Commission to agree that the RMS would be adopted at next year's meeting. This attempt was challenged and a resolution agreed by consensus that sets in motion a series of meetings to develop a RMS draft for consideration in 2005.

Those opposed to resuming commercial whaling under the RMS ask whether the lessons from past mistakes have yet been learnt, fearing commercial whaling under a RMS could lead to the same excesses that occurred before. Past damage inflicted on whale stocks is far from restored. While suspicions about the commitment of whaling nations to a transparent and accountable RMS is understandable, with Japan and Norway blocking the introduction of a whale DNA register as part of the RMS. This is the only means by which the existence of illegal whaling could be detected. DNA testing by scientists at the University of Auckland in New Zealand of over 1,000 samples of whale meat collected from markets in Japan and Korea since 1995, included products from humpback, fin, sei, Bryde's, grey and sperm whales.

The push to overturn the moratorium failed again this year, with anti-whaling nations successful in keeping the simple majority. In addition, the IWC re-affirmed the Southern Ocean Sanctuary for another ten years, the whalers' push to vote via a secret ballot was blocked and Japan and Norway failed to push through a watered down version of the RMS. While some governments disputed that the IWC should indeed increase its conservation agenda, the Commission strongly maintained that it has a clear mandate for the conservation of whales and the initial progress of the new IWC Conservation Committee seems promising. It is pleasing to see that, despite formidable pressure to prevent this work moving forward, the IWC may finally be turning a corner and walking in step with international developments on conservation. Meanwhile, anti-whaling nations have a year to agree on a strategy in order to stand together on the issue of the RMS.

A sperm whale calf 'lob-tailing' off the coast of Crete. The future for this whale is uncertain. Although the IWC maintains a clear mandate for the conservation of cetaceans, a number of increased threats and the prospect of a resumption of commercial whaling under a Revised Management Scheme (RMS) looms on the horizon.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Dr. Notarbartolo di Sciara speculates about the future.

    "In the future and long-term, I am not sure what will happen because we have a very big problem at the base. The problem at the base is that the convention that sets all the work is in my opinion quite obsolete. It is a convention that was prepared in 1946 and it is a world that has changed hugely in the mean time. There is a large part of the world that does not want to see commercial whaling happen again and yet the convention is for the regulation of commercial whaling. I think this a baseline problem that should be addressed."


  • Dr. Roger Payne discusses the Japanese 'scientific whaling' program - Part 1 & Part 2.
  • Roger Payne writes about the economic value of whales in their living state - Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3.
  • Learn more about the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary.
  • What happened in previous Internation Whaling Commission Meetings? View reports on the 2003, 2002 and commentary on the 2001 meetings.
  • What did the crew report on one year ago in Sri Lanka?
    Two years ago in the Seychelles?
    Three years ago in Papua New Guinea?
    Four years ago crossing the Pacific Ocean -
    Real Audio
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Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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