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  IUCN 20 Jun 06
IUCN and the International Whaling Commission

With the 58th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) currently held in St Kitts and Nevis, whales dominate this month’s conservation agenda. The recent vote shows once again that IWC is roughly equally split between proponents and opponents of whaling.

More than ever there is a need to seek a form of consensus that will allow IWC to continue its work. Proponents and opponents all claim to support the conservation of whales but to date have failed to find common ground.

The subject of whale conservation is one of intense interest to many members of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Although IUCN’s membership is divided on the issue of whether whaling is an acceptable way of using whale populations, there is general agreement that any whaling that does occur must be sustainable and managed in an effective, risk-averse manner.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s IUCN supported the adoption of a moratorium on commercial whaling, and specified as a precondition for lifting the moratorium that a management procedure be in place that ensures that no whale populations will be depleted by whaling. Resolutions passed at IUCN General Assemblies (World Conservation Congresses) have confirmed the position that the moratorium should remain in effect at least until the Revised Management Procedure of the IWC has been implemented, while recognising the subsistence and cultural rights of communities dependent on whale hunting. This is in accordance with IUCN’s agreed Principles of Sustainable Use of natural resources.

In its annual submissions to the IWC, IUCN has consistently urged the completion and adoption of the Revised Management Scheme (RMS). IUCN is disappointed that the IWC has at its recent meeting decided not to continue work on the RMS.

Whaling is now expanding again, under various exemptions to the moratorium, yet there is currently no prospect that an international regulatory system will be agreed in the near future. In IUCN’s view, this is a deeply unsatisfactory situation.

“The current stalemate in the IWC means that, despite the official moratorium, we have whaling going on, and no means to provide an independent assessment of the sustainability of the take,” said Justin Cooke, IUCN’s representative on the IWC Scientific Committee.

Many whale species have been hunted almost to extinction and most of those that were depleted by whaling have not yet recovered. Many are still threatened with extinction and require complete protection.

This is the case, for example, for the western Pacific population of Gray Whales, which according to the latest assessment is predicted to become extinct if the recent rate of mortality in fishing nets continues.

IUCN emphasises that even for large whale populations, consumptive exploitation is not the only option for their use.

Where states have adopted policies of exclusively non-lethal use of whales within their waters (such as tourism and non-lethal research), this should be respected.

IUCN has a long tradition of involvement in the selection and management of protected areas, and has supported the adoption of regional cetacean sanctuaries when these are supported by states in the region and backed by effective management plans.

IUCN also supported the adoption of international whale sanctuaries in the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean.

The threats facing cetaceans in the 21st century are more diverse and complex than when the IWC was established over 50 years ago. IUCN has welcomed the IWC’s expansion of its work to address a wider range of threats to cetacean conservation.

In particular, IUCN welcomed the establishment of the IWC Conservation Committee, and is encouraged that this committee has made a start by addressing the issue of ship collisions with whales, while recognising that this is only one of the multiple threats faced by whales, including by-catch in fishing gear, habitat degradation, underwater noise, and exposure to toxic pollutants.

IUCN is also encouraged by the comments from parties who originally opposed such expansion of the IWC’s agenda, that they will not block progress in this regard.

The “St Kitts and Nevis Declaration”, adopted by a narrow majority of the IWC on June 18 amid considerable controversy, contains some elements that are in accord with IUCN’s policy, but it also contains elements that give cause for concern.

The claim that “whales consume huge quantities of fish making the issue a matter of food security for coastal nations” is misleading. The diet of baleen whales mainly consists of species that are not of value to fisheries, and in the areas where there is overlap, catches by fisheries far outstrip the consumption by whales. Most of the world’s fish stocks are fully or over-exploited by commercial fishing.

“Blaming the whales for the depletion of the oceans is like blaming migratory birds for the spread of Avian Influenza,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Head of the IUCN Species Programme. “It is most convenient to put the blame on another species but humans play by far the major role in the problem. Overexploitation by fishing nations and use of destructive fishing practices are the main cause and have also a direct negative impact on cetacean populations.”

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