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Sperm whale and calf
Sperm whales are among target species for Japan's research whalingImage: AP

Whaling commission moves toward transparency

July 14, 2011

The International Whaling Commission passed a measure intended to increase transparency and address allegations of vote-buying. But this comes at the cost of scuttling a proposal to increase civil society participation.


On the Channel Island of Jersey, the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, or IWC, was dominated by discussion over the proposal to eliminate cash payments for membership dues.

Proposed by the United Kingdom and backed by a number of countries including Germany, the proposal passed through a rare consensus decision.

Conservation groups hailed the passage. "It's a huge success," said Nikolas Entrup, head of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in Germany, WDCS.

Nikolas Entrup
German WDCS head Nikolas EntrupImage: WDCS

But Entrup also criticized the commission, and especially a European Union bloc within it, for its failure to allow non-governmental organizations greater participation.

And polarization within the commission is affecting its ability to make decisions, said Despina Simons of the European Bureau for Conservation and Development.

As the commission's deliberations concluded, some NGOs continue to question both the legitimacy of current whaling, and the commission's effectiveness in controlling it.


It's believed that payment of membership dues in cash allowed wealthy countries with strong pro- or anti-whaling interests to purchase the votes of other nations.

Japan, a country with an appetite for seafood, including whales, was accused of having bought the votes of smaller – and poorer – nations.

An investigative report published in the Sunday Times claimed that Guinea, for example, not only receives financial support to vote on the IWC with Japan, but that Japan also recruited it onto the commission in the first place, in order to add to its voting power.

The report also alleges that Japan paid Guinea's nearly 9,000-euro membership fee to the commission, as well as covering travel costs.

The Sunday Times previously reported that the UK paid Belize's IWC dues of around 11,000 euros when its membership had lapsed. Belize then cast a decisive vote with an anti-whaling bloc.

Japanese academic Atsushi Ishii told Deutsche Welle that vote-buying was "very likely," but added, "I would not call it corruption."

More transparency, less participation

The 27-nation EU, acting as a bloc, helped win over the rare consensus decision for transparency in membership fees among the 89 countries that belong to the IWC.

Dues for the commission must now be paid via bank transfer from government accounts.

This will "very strongly prevent the selling of votes" on the commission, Entrup told Deutsche Welle.

Chris Butler-Stroud, chief executive the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, indicated that countries' knowing where the money has come from could allow for better conservation of whales. "There's no place for anyone to criticize that," Shroud said.

But the conservation group did criticize Denmark for blocking a part of the proposition aimed at allowing more civil society participation.

humpback whale
Greenland wants to increase aboriginal subsistence quotas for humpback whalesImage: AP

The UK proposal had also suggested that NGOs be allowed to add their views at commission meetings more often. But Denmark, acting on behalf of Greenland, refused to agree to the membership fees point until the NGO speaking suggestion had been dropped.

"One country should not be able to block 26," Entrup asserted. "This absolutely goes against democracy and consensus," Entrup said, also pointing out that Greenland is not an EU member.

Greenland wants to increase quotas for indigenous subsistence whaling, although whale conservation groups claim this is a backdoor for it to gain commercial whaling capacity.

Status of whales

Many whale populations around the world were severely depleted by hunting over previous centuries.

The International Whaling Commission has upheld a ban on commercial whaling since 1982. Killing whales for scientific research purposes, and indigenous subsistence, continues to be allowed.

The IWC, in reviewing of the status of global whale stocks during this year's meeting, described how some populations of blue and humpback whales seem to be recovering, although other populations such as that of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale suffered a number of ship strikes and entanglements in 2010.

The scientific committee for the commission also reported that more data are needed on Antarctic minke whales, and a gray whale population off the coast of Russia where oil and gas activities are currently taking place. In addition, the IWC hailed a new survey program, which has begun its second ocean foray.

IWC meeting
Critics say polarization within the commission adds to difficulties in decision-makingImage: AP

A report this month from the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society asserts that an Icelandic company is engaging in illegal trade of whale products, in clear violation of international law and IWC rules.

"The whaling commission would be well advised to devote themselves to the problem of the annual killing of hundreds of whales and the increasing trade in whale products," WDCS head Entrup said.

That Iceland appears to not be heeding the ban on commercial whaling points to a deeper problem within the commission: its lack of enforcement power.

Crisis of legitimacy?

Despina Simons from the European Bureau for Conservation and Development said that polarization within the IWC is making it increasingly difficult for the commission to reach decisions.

"The whole thing has become so polarized, the pro-whaling and anti-whaling countries trying to bring in new countries, new votes," Simons told Deutsche Welle.

Areas of trust that have broken down add to friction, which distracts the commission from looking at conservation, Butler-Stroud said.

The polarization fuels a perception that the IWC is becoming dysfunctional – which affects its credibility as well, Ishii indicates.

"I think the countries still have some possibility to slow down the credibility deficit, by for example agreeing on a Southern Atlantic Sanctuary," Ishii stated.

In the end, Entrup thinks the commission must be given enforcement powers, which would make its decisions truly binding.

"The IWC needs to be given teeth – protection on paper isn't good enough."

Author: Sonya Angelica Diehn / Robin Powell
Editor: Anke Rasper

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