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IWC: snakes and ladders for whales


This time at last year’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the evening of the penultimate day, we felt like we’d just gone up a ladder in a global game of ‘snakes and ladders’. Only to slide back down on the final day. Our sights were set higher this year in Panama…

Grey whale diving with a large ship in the backgroundGrey whale diving © Vladimir Potanskiy / WWF-Russia

At last year’s meeting, IWC63, the UK led a successful effort to improve transparency within the IWC. This meant, among other things, that reports from meetings would be released more quickly and made available to the public, and that member governments couldn’t pay their dues in cash payments.

You might think small details like those are only of interest to geeky ‘policy wonks’ (some of my colleagues might agree with you) – but it’s important. If we don’t have formal, publicly available, and timely reports, how do we know what’s going on?

Plus, the IWC has been the most notorious international environmental body for alleged corruption – with certain governments allegedly paying small developing countries for their votes.

So this was a great step forward for the IWC. Then on the final day of IWC63 we were looking for another big step up a ladder, with a good discussion on conservation actions to address the many threats facing all the world’s cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises.

But the agenda item on the creation of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary was derailed when Japan and other ‘pro-whaling’ countries walked out.

Nothing of any substance was achieved that day. No progress on desperately needed conservation work. It was a slide back down a ‘snake’. All they agreed was that the sanctuary would be the first substantive item of the 2012 meeting…

So that’s where we began this week, at IWC64. The South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary was taken to a vote in the end – the ‘pro-whaling’ countries are opposed to it even though there is no whaling in the proposed area.

That long-awaited vote was lost – 38 for, 21 against. No three-quarter majority, so no sanctuary. And we were back at the bottom of a snake again.

But there was still serious work to be done, so we played on. By lobbying the government delegations hard, working with our friends from other conservation and welfare charities, we’ve managed to climb a few other ladders. For example…

  • The US government submitted two proposals to the International Maritime Organisation to reduce the death from ship strikes of blue (and other) whales off the US west coast
  • A scientific workshop to look at marine debris impacts on whales has been approved
  • Conservation management plans for south-west and south-east Atlantic southern right whales were adopted
  • There was strong endorsement for the small cetacean fund, which supports several cetacean conservation projects – including a WWF project to investigate alternative fishing gear that’s friendly to vaquita (the world’s smallest cetacean, critically endangered and numbering just 200 individuals)

One of WWF’s main priorities this year concerned man-made noise – see my previous blog on saving Sakhalin’s gray whales. Our ‘Don’t be a buckethead’ campaign is all about drawing attention to the damaging underwater noise caused by oil drilling, ships, pile-driving, seismic testing, and sonar – all of which interfere with cetaceans’ navigation, communications and feeding.

The US government proposed a working group to address the threat of man-made noise on cetaceans, and this was supported by a number of other governments.

Mexico’s vaquita porpoise and the Maui’s dolphin of New Zealand were a particular focus of discussions at IWC64 today. They live on opposite sides of the planet, but these cetaceans are facing the same problem – namely being accidentally entangled in fishing nets and drowned.

Tail fin of a humpback whale entangled in fisherman's netsNets can even entangle and ensnare the mighty humpback whale © National Geographic Stock / Bill Curtsinger / WWF

Accidental capture in fishing operations (‘bycatch’) is the biggest threat to cetacean species around the world right now. It’s estimated that more than 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die each year from entanglement in various types of fishing gear. That’s an average of one cetacean killed by bycatch every two minutes.

But scientists believe if bycatch is eliminated, populations of these rare cetaceans can recover. Mexico and New Zealand were urged here to take all possible immediate measures to save these animals from extinction by banning the use of dangerous fishing gear. As I’ve said, we’re supporting the development of safer alternatives.

So as we reach the end of this year’s IWC snakes and ladders game, there have inevitably been ups and downs. At least it looks like we’re going to get through the agenda this time.

More importantly, at last, conservation of cetaceans is getting some of the serious attention it deserves.

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