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David @ Tokyo

Perspective from Japan on whaling and whale meat, a spot of gourmet news, and monthly updates of whale meat stockpile statistics



IWC 2006: Reflection - the Moratorium and John Gulland

A new Whaling FAQ entry that I'm going to write up is about the commercial whaling moratorium.

Recently in the media there have been statements like this:
Both [pro-sustainable use and anti-use] sides agree that the moratorium and other conservation efforts have helped many whale populations recover.
This isn't strictly true, and that's what the FAQ entry is going to be about. The pro-sustainable use side certainly would agree that "other conservation efforts" were responsible for the recovery of whale populations (largely exclusive of the moratorium), whereas the anti-use side argues that the commercial whaling moratorium is the reason for these recoveries, giving little credit to prior conservation measures.

An examination of the facts strongly supports the argument that the moratorium, which took effect in 1986, was an almost completely pointless exercise in terms of deriving conservation benefits.

The Southern Ocean Sanctuary, later imposed in 1994, was a step further, providing absolutely no conservation benefits. With a commercial whaling moratorium in effect globally, sanctuaries are meaningless duplicative arrangements.

But the duplicative nature of the moratorium isn't as obvious. The Whaling library site has a list of various great whale species, and when they were protected from commercial hunting by the IWC here:
Clearly, the IWC had already been taking measures to protect depleted stocks of whales in many cases well before the idea of a commercial whaling moratorium had even been floated. The moratorium thus meant little in terms of conservation for the most heavily depleted large whale stocks.
None of the species noted above died out, and most today are recovered or recovering (the Gray whale in the western Pacific, and the Right whale in the North Atlantic are the only species that remain in imminent danger of extinction - with ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear the main threats to their survival. Of course, neither are hunted by whalers).

The two remaining species (minke and bryde's) that did get protection in 1986 are today regarded as being in good shape. A strong argument can be made that protection was not even required in the first instance. For example, anthropogenic removals of minke whales in the Antarctic for example never exceeded 9,000 whales, and in the last year before the moratorium was imposed, around 5,000 were taken. The IWC Scientific Committee then agreed in the early 1990's that the abundance was around 760,000, with 95% confidence that the true figure lay between 510,000 and 1,140,000. Given that even a total catch of 10,000 Antarctic minke whales would almost certainly have been less than 2% of the population size, there is a lot of weight to the idea that this level of catch was quite sustainable, and that protection was not required.

The record of proceedings at the 1982 IWC meeting (and meetings in prior years) indicate that many nations felt that the moratorium measure contravened the ICRW. For example, land-locked Switzerland, which today votes against all whaling, despite claiming to vote in accordance with scientific evidence, stated that it would abstain from the moratorium vote, "because it believed the proposal did not fulfil the Convention requirement of being based on scientific findings".

Japan and Norway were amongst whaling nations who also noted that the moratorium had not been advised as necessary by the IWC's Scientific Committee.

* * *

The UN's FAO observer at the 1982 meeting, the late Dr John Gulland (profile), noted concerns about the lack of scientific need for a moratorium in detail here:
It is expected, on the basis of our current knowledge of the dynamics of whale populations, that the open ocean stocks, including the large stock of Antarctic whales, are also increasing, but direct evidence is lacking.
Here the past record of the Commission has caused concern, such that none of the baleen whales (other than minke) now support significant industries. The present record is better. Where commercial whaling is still being carried on, the catches are, by and large, within the productive capacity of the stock and should be sustainable indefinitely. However this depends on having adequate scientific advice.
The continuation of commercial whaling can also be threatened by management measures that are too restrictive. The most extreme example is a moratorium on all whaling. This is a completely unselective measure. Given the differing status of the various stocks, and the fact that virtually all those species or stocks that are seriously depleted are already receiving complete protection, there seems to be no scientific justification for a global moratorium. A justification for a complete cessation of whaling can be put forward on aesthetic or moral grounds, but these seem outside the terms of reference of the Commission.
Another justification for a moratorium is that not enough is known about the dynamics of whale populations, and that no catches should be taken until adequate knowledge is obtained. The objection to this is that the best, if not the only, way to determine the sustainable yield of a whale stock is carefully monitored harvesting. Certainly our knowledge of whale stocks is far from complete, and there can be considerable argument on just how large a catch can be sustained from individual stocks. However, these doubts are no reason for not taking moderate, and carefully monitored catches from stocks which appear to be in a healthy condition.
The present time is, therefore, a crisis point in determining the trends of the basic policies of the Commission. Should it be considering only conservation in the narrow, protectionist sense, or should it include also the rational utilization of those stocks which can sustain commercial harvesting?
Gulland also repeated his concerns about the moratorium in a 1988 article in New Scientist, where he noted:
[I]f conservation means ensuring that catches are kept within reasonable bounds, and that depleted whale stocks are allowed to recover, the main victories had been won earlier.
[I]f conservation means a sensible balance between the current use of a resource, and conserving it for possible use in the future, the moratorium was hardly a major victory. Some, myself included, consider it a setback.
Ultimately, the moratorium was of course imposed, and the IWC's "New Management Procedure" was replaced by the newly developed and highly risk averse "Revised Management Procedure" after the imposition of the moratorium. But the imposition of the moratorium in the first place in clearly showed that already a large number of ICRW signatories were no longer interested in making decisions in accordance with scientific findings, as required by the convention. Nonetheless, the Revised Management Procedure was an important development in conservation terms. If there was any benefit from the moratorium, the RMP seems to be it.

Still today, despite this development, and evidence that many stocks are in good shape or are recovering (rapidly in certain cases), still anti-use proponents are prepared to disguise their true beliefs by asserting that the moratorium is the reason why the whale was saved.

Scientists today of course continue to note that sustainable whaling is possible for many stocks. Judy Zeh, member of the IWC Scientific Committee and former Chair, told Australia's ABC a few years back:
We're in the process of completing the third circumpolar survey, and looking at minke whale estimates for the southern oceans, and as far as I know at present, it's certainly true that if commercial whaling were resumed under the revised management procedure, it could be managed safely.
The IWC Scientific Committee is due to finalize it's latest Antarctic minke whale abundance estimates by next year's IWC meeting. The number is certain to be in the hundred's of thousands, even if it indeed is lower than the 1990 estimate, as has often been reported in recent years. This will put the anti-use proponents under more pressure than ever to permit limited hunts, in accordance with scientific advice.

That's the long version! Somehow I'll have to condense this down for the FAQ.

David, this would have to be one of the best analyses of the moratorium on the web today.
Yes, excellent stuff.
glenn, sirocco,

thanks guys :-)
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