The International Ban on Whaling is Constantly Under Threat - This Year Was No Different

Thursday, 10 Nov, 2022

Sea Shepherd media teams from the UK, Global and Italy went to Portoroz, Slovenia  last month as part of the Stop the Grind Coalition during the 68th International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference. We were there to share the latest information on the slaughter of pilot whales and other dolphins in the Faroe Islands as documented by our crew on campaign there this year, and to better understand the IWC delegates’ commitment to protecting small cetaceans. 

Tommaso De Lorenzi of Sea Shepherd Italy speaks with journalists at the IWC Convention in Slovenia.

In short, we were there to find out if there was any chance the IWC could help bring an end to the grind (read our full report on the Stop the Grind website here).

But of course we couldn’t ignore the ongoing battle within the IWC to protect the whales, and Japan’s ability to interfere despite no longer being official members since they left in 2019. 

A Bit of Background

The IWC was established in 1946 to implement the "International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling", primarily concerned with supporting the international whaling industry. Several decades later in 1975, after almost two million whales were slaughtered and several species brought to the brink of extinction, the commission issued a trade ban. When whale populations didn’t recover, member countries finally agreed to a complete global ban on commercial whaling in 1982, which came into effect in 1986. “More than forty years since the global moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted, it is justly regarded as one of the most important conservation and animal protection measures of all time,” writes Humane Society President and CEO Kitty Block in a recent article. “By most estimates it has saved hundreds of thousands of whales from the harpoon and prevented the extinction of several species and population groups.”

Despite this moratorium – which is impermanent by nature and subject to regular renegotiation – several countries have taken advantage of legal loopholes to continue commercial whaling. Iceland and Norway have continued whaling in this legal gray area, since they expressed reservations on the ban. After its scientific whaling program in the Southern Ocean was declared a sham by the International Courts and the continued harassment by Sea Shepherd made going to the Southern Ocean (Antarctica) expensive and unpopular, Japan left the IWC in 2019 to instead continue a much reduced whaling program in its own waters. This hasn’t stopped Japan from challenging the moratorium through its direct influence on other IWC delegates.

This year, the first IWC meeting since 2018 because of the pandemic, they tried a new tactic:

“The current effort aimed at overturning the moratorium is framed in terms of marine-based food security,” says Kitty Block of Humane Society International (HSI). “It’s classic misdirection, using a legitimate global concern as a justification for whaling, which does nothing to improve food security, and certainly not for the nations advancing the measure. These nations could better spend their time working to curb illegal, destructive and unsustainable fishing practices, within relevant global forums and treaty organizations.”

While “like-minded delegates” (those opposed to whaling) at the IWC were successful in uniting to block the proposal to open a debate to lift the ban on commercial whaling in the name of “food security”, they weren’t prepared for what happened next.

Sabotage and Indolence at the IWC

On the fourth day of IWC68, the creation of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (SAWS) was up for a vote after 20 years of debates at the IWC. This year the proposal was brought forth by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and had the support of most members of the Commission. It seemed like the hard work of the like-minded conservationist delegates and NGOs had paid off: they predicted they had the votes to make it pass. What they didn’t predict was that Iceland and 16 other opposing nations would stage a walk-out, thus breaking quorum and preventing a vote.

According to an excellent article about the incident written by Elsa Cabrera, Executive Director of the Cetacean Conservation Center in Chile and accredited observer to the IWC since 2001, those 16 other nations have no whaling operations themselves, but are voting on behalf of Japan’s interests: “Antigua and Barbuda, Benin, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Kiribati, Laos, Liberia, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Nauru, Palau, St. Lucia and Solomon Islands are rather part of the group of countries that have been related to the ‘harpoon diplomacy’ implemented by Japan for decades through development programs in exchange for their participation, support and votes at the IWC.” Also known as “checkbook diplomacy”, a report by the Third Millennium Foundation showed that 28 of the current IWC member states joined the commission after receiving development aid payments from Japan. And in 2010 a British Sunday Times reporter secretly filmed several Caribbean and African delegates promising their votes to the highest bidder.

Despite the anger and frustration voiced by many of the delegates over the walkout, the Chair decided to push the issue to the next IWC meeting in 2024 in Peru, with the first order of business being to decide what constitutes “quorum”. If whale conservation measures that the majority of IWC delegates support keep getting shot down due to these kinds of tactics, it’s hard to know whether the IWC is the best forum for trying to achieve more protections for small cetaceans. But the conservation NGOs, while frustrated and heartbroken, aren’t about to give up.

“It's very heartening to meet and be around so many passionate and awesome people who want to make the world a better place,” wrote Ed Goodall of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), one of the NGO observers at the IWC conference. “We have to find the glimmers of hope in the storm. Today was an outrageous performance by nefarious forces to stop something really positive happening for our Ocean cousins, our planet, and our only home. But we won't stop. We fight on. We have no other choice.”

Sea Shepherd’s Fight to Protect Whales since 1977

Historically, Sea Shepherd hasn’t shied away from criticizing the IWC’s inability to protect whales from Norway, Japan and Iceland, preferring to take direct action to stop the whalers when and where we thought it to be the most effective. Today, Japan is no longer whaling in the Southern Ocean thanks to our efforts, yet continue to kill in their own waters. Iceland’s last commercial whaling operation has been under such intense scrutiny thanks to Sea Shepherd’s Northern Exposure campaign showing the world the more than 140 Fin whales harpooned for export to Japan each year, that it’s likely the Icelandic government will not renew their license. For some, Sea Shepherd interferes too much in “other countries’ business”. For others, we don’t interfere enough. 

While our methods may change over time, our mission has never wavered: we will do everything within our power and with the resources we have at hand to save as many lives as possible. In the past eight years that means that we have evolved and adapted to address one of the biggest threats to whale populations worldwide: illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

While it’s clear we need to end the deliberate killing of whales, it’s less obvious to general public how important it is to also address the threats that are quietly killing whales in much larger numbers: death as bycatch in fishing nets, entanglement in ghost nets, ingestion of plastic marine debris, ship strike, noise pollution, habitat loss, climate change, mass strandings, and the overfishing of fish and krill populations they feed on to survive. Our campaigns to fight IUU fishing addresses many of these issues head on, resulting in the arrest of 80 vessels in the past six years alone, saving countless lives. This has only been possible because of our fleet, our experience fighting illegal activities on the frontlines, and our partnerships with governments and local authorities with the law enforcement power to make those arrests. 

While the like-minded delegates and NGOs at the IWC continue to fight to protect whales through international diplomacy, Sea Shepherd will continue to fight for them on the frontlines around the world, as long as it takes. 


Delegates on the second day of the IWC convention in Slovenia this October.
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