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Whales remain unprotected

Irene Banos Ruiz
October 25, 2016

At the International Whaling Commission meeting, pro-whaling countries have scuttled a proposal for a cetacean sanctuary in the South Atlantic - it's a sign of Japan's continued political influence on the whaling topic.

Japan Walfang zu wissenschaftlichen Zwecken
Image: IFAW

The proposal for a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic, which was presented at the 65th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Slovenia, has failed to reach the required support.

The proposal for the sanctuary, which would have covered an area as big as India and Russia together, had been presented by Argentina, Gabon, South Africa, Uruguay and Brazil.

Japan, Iceland and Norway were the three main countries that led the effort to block the sanctuary due - environmentalists say - to their commercial interests. These three nations have used legal loopholes and controversial arguments to keep hunting whales, even in existing sanctuaries.

Despite the new rejection, environmental campaigners and proposing countries will keep working for a whale preserve at the next IWC meeting in 2018. Meanwhile, the question remains as to how to best protect whales from countries that insist on whaling.

"We knew that it would probably not get the support - but it is still very disappointing," Astrid Fuchs, head of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation's Stop Whaling Program, told DW from Slovenia.

Whalers cut open and inspect meat from a fin whale
Fin whales provide around 10 metric tons of meat eachImage: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images

An updated sanctuary

While the moratorium for commercial hunting from 1985 largely improved the protection of whales, threats such as by-catch or pollution were left out of the agreement. Whale sanctuaries are intended to fill that gap.

The South Atlantic would have been the first IWC sanctuary to include a management plan to enhance non-lethal research methods, and allow for close monitoring of species recovery along with in-depth analysis of current and potential threats.

"Whales are a very important part of oceans' sustainability," said Hermano Telles Ribeiro, Brazilian commissioner to the IWC. "So we are protecting them - but also looking at the sustainability of the whole chain of fish, plankton, et cetera," Telles told DW from the IWC meeting in Slovenia.

The new sanctuary would focus on reducing accidental catch of cetaceans in fishing nets, also known as by-catch, and avoiding collisions between whales and boats.

Establishment of a sanctuary is also oriented toward preventing pollutants and impacts from land-based activities on the water, and to better understand recent massive marine die-offs and mitigating climate change effects.

Whale catcher ship using a harpoon
Japan keeps hunting whales, despite strong international criticismImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Sutton-Hibbert

Risky commercial interests

The South Atlantic sanctuary proposal required three-quarters of countries voting to support it - but support this time around was even lower than in 2014. If approved, the sanctuary would have joined two other existing IWC whale sanctuaries, one in the Indian Ocean and one in the Southern Ocean.

In both sanctuaries, whaling is only permitted for aboriginal subsistence and scientific purposes; commercial whaling is wholly banned under the 1985 commercial whaling moratorium.

But Japan, Norway and Iceland have kept hunting around 2,000 whales every year, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation - and these countries have successfully opposed the sanctuary - again.

"The whaling nations have been in opposition to the proposal for many years," said Kitty Block, vice president of the animal protection organization Humane Society International. She continued that these countries have been effective in gaining around them allies that have no interest in whaling, yet stand with whaling countries for political reasons.

Proposed South Atlantic whale sanctuary graphic

Lack of enforcement

Japan has been using the mask of scientific research to continue whaling in the sanctuaries; Iceland and Norway exploit other loopholes. The lack of sanctioning mechanisms has weakened IWC decisions over the years.

"At the time IWC started talking about conservation, it was incredibly forward-looking - but it did not implement any mechanism to enforce the decisions," Block said.

IWC meeting in Slovenia
Humane Society International is campaigning for whale protection in SloveniaImage: HSIGlobal

Even though the IWC, numerous countries around the world and even the International Court of Justice have ruled against Japan for undermining the international agreement, Japan has not stopped hunting whales.

"These things depend on countries acting in good faith," Block said. But without "ocean police," not all countries come into line, she added.

The economic argument

One of the main points emerging is the idea that whales are more valuable alive than they are dead.

A new whale sanctuary would allow coastal communities to benefit from whales in a sustainable way - "from whale watching, for instance," said Fuchs.

Countries proposing the sanctuary presented figures on past revenues generated by whale watching, and its potential to increase. In Argentina for instance, the number of tourists going on whale watching tours has increased 548 percent from 1991 to 2007.

Proposing countries also say the sanctuary would offer opportunities for whale-based eco-tourism that would benefit an area much broader than only coastal villages in the South Atlantic basin.

Whale tail
Whale watching could be a sustainable alternative to whale huntingImage: AP

Hope for safe swimming

"In the 21st century, the world has moved beyond commercial whaling," Block said. "It has moved into an area of whale conservation and protection - and these sanctuaries are the keystone of these efforts."

But the result of the vote has shown that all countries do not share this position. 

Glenn Inwood, the spokesperson for the Japanese delegation at IWC, told DW that Japan opposed the sanctuary due to lack of scientific merit for it. He said anti-whaling countries are welcome to turn their territorial waters into protected areas through their own domestic legislation - just not the entire South Atlantic Ocean.

Fuchs pointed to Japan's extensive outreach among African countries as the success factor for opposing the sanctuary proposal. Brazil did virtually none, she added. 

"The proposing countries now have two more years to increase bilateral talks and get more countries onboard," Fuchs said.

Telles remains optimistic: "We'll keep trying in the next meeting."

In any case, Brazil is not likely to give up, as it has been fighting for the South Atlantic whale sanctuary since 1998.