IWC 66 Day Three
The morning of this day was all about numbers. Some sounded pretty good, like the recovery of southern hemisphere humpback whales to 70% of their “carrying capacity”. I’m not sure whether “carrying capacity” refers to the original population size before the wanton slaughter began, or to the ability of the diminished ecosystem of today to sustain the number of humpbacks that are now alive. Anyway, it sounded like pretty good news for a species that had been brought down to a point where it was teetering on the brink of extinction. There were other encouraging examples too, proof of the amazing things that can happen when killing stops and life begins again. It’s hard to believe, but blue whales in the northern hemisphere are mighty once again. Things are not quite so good in the southern hemisphere, where blues took the brunt of the hit from industrial whaling, but they are recovering too. It was all good news for species after species, though there were exceptions. The South Atlantic right whale is in trouble, despite signs a few years ago that it was recovering. Too many babies are washing up on beaches, for reasons unclear. Overall though, one might think of celebrating the recovery that has taken place since the moratorium was enacted 30 years ago, and enjoy a round of high fives or a glass of champagne. Except for the language used. Whales are not populations and communities of sentient beings for this august body; they are stocks, like cans lined up on a supermarket shelf, waiting to be plucked by eager hands. Those eager hands are the worry here. There are many of them, and there is no sign of them going away. Given what we are learning about whales and their cultures, that is so, so sad.
It turned out that culture provoked the biggest fight of the day. No fisticuffs were thrown, but they may well have. The strident voice of the pro whaling Japanese NGO who defended Japan’s bid for a coastal whaling quota was so loud that it probably caused ears to be covered. I doubt if he advanced his cause, especially because he impulsively took the microphone out of the hands of the pro whale Japanese NGO when she started to speak in a soft reasonable voice. I’d say he lost that argument ten to zip. Japan’s case boils down to history. Hundreds of years ago, people from small Japanese villages went to sea in litte boats to catch big whales. This created the grounds for today’s argument that coastal whaling is a cultural Japanese tradition. The counter argument from many delegates today is that it would be a commercial hunt and therefore a violation of the moratorium. Just the same, Monaco ventured the thought that if Japan were to give up “special permit” whaling and cease its assault on the Antarctic sanctuary, there might be a possibility that its coastal whaling could be classified as aboriginal and exempted from the moratorium. Japan wasn’t biting. Instead, it launched another strategy, raising the issue of the future of the IWC, recognizing the divide that exists and seeking compromise in dulcet tones that sounded so reasonable that one might be lulled into believing in a change of heart. Until the wall. South Africa went along with Japan for a while, apparently believing, and raised the possibility that small cetaceans could at last be included in the Commission’s mandate. Not a chance.
Small cetaceans turned out to provide the agony of this day. The Scientific Committee has done a lot of work looking at populations of small cetaceans and identifying some of them as in dire trouble. Mexico’s vaquita is one, another is New Zealand’s Maui dolphin. The Scientific Committee resorted to unusually emphatic language in its report on these endangered species, calling on the Commission to act urgently, or face the extinction of yet another species. Tomorrow we shall hear the decision about the vaquita; late afternoon signs today suggested there might be enough language in the emergency resolution tabled by the USA to encourage immediate and urgent action. We shall see, and there is some hope, but when it came to the Maui dolphin we will not see anything like the action that is so desperately needed. This tiny New Zealand dolphin is facing threats from seismic exploration as well as gill netting and is certainly as endangered as the vaquita. All we heard from New Zealand were the same lines as two years ago. They are monitoring the situation. The word pathetic comes to mind. Why on Earth the plea of the Scientific Committee wasn’t heard and real action taken to save the 53 Maui dolphins left alive today is anyone’s guess, but as a New Zealander, I hang my head.
So we come to the worst news of today. Irawaddy dolphins, who inhabit the trans boundary area between Laos and Cambodia, are functionally extinct. That means there are too few of them to breed and give the population any chance of recovering. Their numbers are down from just 6 individuals early this year to 3 now. Too sad for words.
It’s time to beat the drum!
by Paul Spong,
October 26, 2016