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December 14, 2021

International Whaling Commission Requires Bold Vision to Save Whales and Dolphins

topic: Mass Extinction
by: Sue Fisher
org: Animal Welfare Institute

Nearly 3 million great whales were killed by industrial whaling operations in the 20th century, representing the largest-ever removal of biomass on the planet. Fleets of massive factory ships nearly emptied the seas of these enormous animals, permanently changing the marine ecosystem. 

Seventy-five years ago, in December 1946, the major whaling nations at the time signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a global treaty that created the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to conserve whales while maximising hunting quotas. For decades, the IWC simply presided over the slaughter of great whales (minke whales and other larger species), protecting some species as their populations crashed, while redirecting the voracious fleets to others.

By the 1960s, entire species had been lost forever and others were on the brink of extinction when the first television images of industrial whale killing shocked the public into action. The “Save the Whales” movement of the 1970s, coordinated by my organisation, the Animal Welfare Institute, mobilised people all over the world to protest this wanton destruction of marine life. Elected leaders began to take notice. In 1982, the IWC passed a global ban on commercial whaling that took effect in 1986 and endures today.  

Yet, as the IWC celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, many whale species are nowhere near their pre-exploitation levels, and several face imminent extinction, including the North Atlantic right whale found along North America’s east coast. Today, the greatest threat to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) is not men firing exploding harpoons - it is all of humanity and the devastation wrought by the biodiversity, pollution and climate crises we have created. 

Many species are facing increased threats from fisheries bycatch; chemical, plastic and noise pollution; ship strikes; and habitat loss, as well as continued direct persecution from commercial whaling and dolphin drive hunts. 

Last month, more than 50 NGOs worldwide, joined by a host of celebrities, including Dr. Jane Goodall, launched a new 50-Year Vision for the IWC. It calls on the 88 member countries to act urgently to save cetacean species from decline.

The Ocean in Crisis

The degradation of the ocean has accelerated so rapidly in recent years, scientific research can barely keep pace: 

  • The ocean is warming up to 40 percent faster on average than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated only six years ago.
  • More than 150 million metric tons of plastics have accumulated in the ocean.
  • Increasing vessel traffic, seismic surveys and exploration, and military activities are raising ambient noise levels throughout the world’s oceans.
  • One-third of fish stocks today are overexploited.  

All of these changes hurt cetaceans both directly and indirectly. Increasing numbers of whales and dolphins are struck by vessels, entangled in fishing gear and harmed by the ingestion of plastic, including microplastics. An estimated 300,000 cetaceans are killed annually as “bycatch” in fisheries alone and probably tens of thousands more die in ship strikes. 

Less immediately visible but no less insidious, cetaceans lose critical habitat to climate change, and their feeding and communication are disrupted by increasing anthropogenic noise. Additionally, chemical pollution compromises their immune and reproductive systems, resulting in lower birth rates and life expectancies. Among the 90 species, 12 subspecies and 28 subpopulations of cetaceans that have been identified and assessed, 22 are now listed as critically endangered, 22 as endangered and 16 as vulnerable.

How the IWC can help

Nearly 40 years since it banned commercial whaling, the IWC has evolved into a highly respected global body with unique expertise and a well-established legal mandate to implement a full range of management, conservation and welfare measures affecting all cetaceans. After decades of investing in research, the IWC knows which conservation measures work, and it has the reach and credibility to lead their implementation globally. 

Currently, the IWC has an ambitious 10-year strategic plan to confront the greatest threats to cetaceans. But to effectively tackle all of them (and others, such as zoonotic diseases, that we are still attempting to fully understand), the IWC urgently needs to replicate what’s working and scale it up.  

The 50-year Vision positions the IWC “at the center of global, regional and local efforts to ensure the full recovery and health of all cetacean populations, safeguard their welfare, and maximise their ecological contributions to healthy oceans.” 

Expanding and funding the IWC’s conservation work is the most urgent priority in the vision statement. Among our other recommendations: The IWC must ensure that whale watching and ongoing subsistence whaling are effectively managed, maintain the critical ban on commercial whaling, implement marine protected areas with specific conservation goals and increase collaboration with other international organizations and among its member governments.  

The IWC’s 75th anniversary is an opportunity for a paradigm shift, similar to what occurred after the commercial whaling ban of the 1980s. As long as whaling persists, the IWC will have a responsibility to manage it. But it also needs to look forward, with confidence, to a future that’s not based on an outdated concept of whales as consumable products, but as engineers of their environment, income drivers for coastal communities, and, at the most basic level, amazing and vulnerable creatures.  

As Goodall urged at the vision launch event, “For the sake of these incredible animals, for the sake of the next generation who care so deeply about our planet, and for the health of the precious ocean upon which we all rely, we must not fail.”

Sue Fisher is a marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.

Image by Vivek Kumar.

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