IWC 66 Day Two

A blast from the past

And a rude awakening

Sidney Holt has saved more whales than anyone. It’s a bland but totally true statement. Were it not for Sidney, the blue whale would probably be gone from the face of the Earth. Extinct. Fin and humpback whales would not be far behind. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, possibly millions.

The IWC was formed in 1946. The assessment rule of thumb of the day was the “blue whale unit” and quotas were set accordingly. A blue whale unit equaled one blue whale, 2 fin whales, two and a half humpback whales and six sei whales. It was all about oil. The more whales killed, the more oil produced. The whalers went on their merry way until profits started going down. Less oil was being produced year by year. Worrisome. The Commission didn’t trust the advice coming from its scientific committee, so it decided to call in an independent group of scientists, who formed “The Committee of Three”. Sidney was one of them, the others being Doug Chapman of the USA and Kay Allen of Australia. Their conclusions in the early 1960s rocked the IWC and put the brakes on commercial whaling. Sidney, who worked for the FAO as a fisheries biologist, did the math that showed how dire the situation was. We and the whales owe a huge debt of gratitude to him. He is now 90 years old and a little frail, but his mind is as sharp as a razor. And he is here, regaling anyone within earshot with tales from the past that bring hoots of laughter and moments of reflection. A few lucky among us have a hot off the press copy of his book: SAVE THE WHALE! Memoirs of a whale hugger. It’s hard to know what the delegates at this meeting make of Sidney’s presence, but he is very visible and I suspect some of them recognize him as the enemy who won. The moratorium on commercial whaling, the Indian Ocean Sanctuary, and the Southern Oceans Sanctuary would almost certainly not exist without Sidney. We are blessed by his presence as we try to turn the page.

Reflections aside, this has been a very difficult day. It began with yet another rejection of SAWS, the proposal to establish a sanctuary for whales in the South Atlantic Ocean. The vote in favour was about 60%, so it didn’t come close to achieving the ¾ majority it needed. Hopes dashed, the proponents led by Brazil and Argentina press on. Brazil has offered to host the next IWC meeting, in 2018, so perhaps the ambience of that land of beaches and beauty will be enough to put Japan’s acolytes under their spell. We can only hope. Hope aside, the spectacle of country after another casting votes according to Japan’s script was enough to turn strong stomachs.

The next blow came when a resolution about trying to save the vaquita from extinction stalled under the stony (read heartless) gaze of Iceland and Norway. Mexico’s tiny dolphin is being drowned in gill nets being set to catch totoaba, a fish in the northern Gulf of California that is being caught for its swim bladder, which fetches big bucks in China and Hong Kong. The totoaba is itself endangered, and the trade is illegal, but none of that matters. A year ago, the vaquita was down to less than 100 individuals; now, with three recent deaths, it is just 59. The situation cries out for urgent action. Mexico is trying. CITES and the IUCN have taken up the vaquita’s cause at their recent meetings, so it seemed a no brainer that the IWC would too. Not so. Instead of passion and action, what we got was mean spirited whining. I tell you, if Iceland and Norway persist in claiming that the IWC has no business dealing with small cetaceans because they weren’t mentioned in the 1946 Convention, I might just throw up more than breakfast. What on Earth are these guys playing at? What do they not understand about the word extinction? Do they not remember the baiji?

Onward, we entered another dark tunnel, aboriginal subsistence whaling. I doubt whether anyone in the room objects to the principle that aboriginal people in the Arctic, who have depended on cetaceans for centuries should be deprived of an important source of food. But what we heard was a claim of rights that amounted to open season, and a report from an “expert panel” that offered a blank cheque as a solution. No need any more for a “needs “ statement. Just fill in the blank with a number, any number, and go right ahead. I may be exaggerating, because the IWC will still have to approve quotas, but that’s what it sounded like. Some words of caution were heard, and we shall see before this week ends how the wind is actually blowing, but it feels a bit in the face at the moment.

By Paul Spong,

Portoroz Slovenia,

October 25, 2016






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