Notes from the 52nd IWC meeting in Adelaide

By Paul Spong -

Day 1 - Tue, 4th July

This year's meeting of the IWC (International Whaling Commission) is being held in Adelaide, Australia. As one might expect from the Australians, it became immediately obvious that this is a whale friendly venue. The day before the meeting a "Whale Fest" was held in a nearby park, with music, speeches, stalls from a dozen groups, inflatable whales, a huge air filled Earth globe light enough for for kids to toss around, and a delegation of young people (KIDS FOR WHALES) from around the world who displayed a beautiful banner and made speeches in half a dozen different languages calling on the commission to create a South Pacific Sanctuary for whales. It was a refreshing scene reminiscent of the energy that got the "Save the Whales" movement going nearly 30 years ago, when whales were facing their greatest crisis. The new recognition that another crisis is looming for whales (i.e. the threat of renewed & expanded commercial whaling) is slowly dawning on a public that has long believed the whales "saved".

For Adelaiders, the wakeup came in the form of a brochure distributed to every household the week before the meeting by Japanese whale propogandists who likened eating whales to the Australian tradition of eating "meat pies". As one might expect, the message offended many and alerted all the issue at hand. The pro-whaling faction and their message is highly visible and getting a lot of notice here, so the whales are fortunate in having an equally dedicated group of supporters on their side. They lined the entrance way to the meeting on the first morning (July 3) in a silent vigil, holding signs calling on the Commission to establish a South Pacific Sanctuary for whales, and pleading with a long list of named countries not to abstain on the sanctuary issue when the vote comes. Later, in dusky light at the end of the long first day, the whale friendly folk were back again, lining the walkway to the entrance of Adelaide's Museum, the site of a reception for IWC delegates hosted by Australia... holding lovely paper lanterns in various shapes, some in whale form, some with messages ("love whales") , all emitting a soft glow from within. All silent. It was a touching scene that no-one could ignore.

Inside the meeting, Day One saw the whalers, especially Japan, immediately forced on the defensive. Whale watching is expanding everywhere, and the economic benefits are obvious to all, far outweighing the value of dead whales. The case was made here again in the form of a report on the economic benefits of whale watching in the Kingom of Tonga. Though in its infancy, there is no doubt that whale watching is already producing significant benefits for the local Tongan economy, even though the population of whales (humpbacks) is tiny, barely there at all after a long decline towards extinction that stopped at the brink in 1978, when the King of Tonga decided to end the local tradition of killing humpbacks for food. Despite claims from a few pro whaling nations like Antigua (who declared whale watching to be a form of "economic Imperialism" and there to be no reason why killing whales cannot coexist with watching them) it was obvious to all that whales will never be killed in Tonga again.

The next blow to the whalers came when the report of the sub-committee on "whaling methods" (it used to be called "humane methods") described the furor that occurred when the UK wanted to show the members a video of the scene at Futo port in Japan when dolphins were driven into the bay and slaughtered last year. Many of you will have seen news reports of this horrifying spectacle which occurred largely to satisfy the demand of aquariums for captive dolphins... after the chosen half dozen were removed, 69 other dolphins were slaughtered in the most gruesome manner imaginable. The video created shock waves in countries around the world and waves of protest were directed towards Japan. The UK wanted the IWC to see the video and condemn the methods used to kill the dolphins. Japan objected, insisting that "small cetaceans" are outside the scope of the IWC's mandate, so the issue is irrelevant. The committee's chairperson agreed with Japan that the video should not be shown to the committee, but as a gesture to the UK suggested it could be shown outside the meeting room. Japan walked out in protest. Though the Futo video was nowhere to be seen in the first Plenary session of this meeting, the replay of the committee incident was certainly enough to make everyne aware of it, and embarrass Japan into a clumsy reiteration of its untenable position.

Far more important than either of these developments was the report of the IWC's Scientific Committee on "abundance estimates" for whale populations. For years, ever since 1990 when the last estimate of Antarctic minke whale numbers was made, Japan has claimed that there are so many minke whales in the Antarctic that some have to be killed in order to help blue whales recover and protect declining fish stocks. Indeed, if one were to believe the argument, kiling minke whales is essential to preserving and restoring balance to Antarctic ecosystems. The number of Antarctic minkes was estimated at 760,000 by the Scientific Committee. It certainly came as a surprise to many and was probably a shock to some, to hear the chairperson of the Scientific Committee calmly stating that scientists are no longer certain about the numbers & indeed believe them to be significantly smaller than the 1990 estimate. Not only that, the methods used to estimate numbers have deficiencies built into them that call for their re-evaluation, and details like "clustering" (i.e. the social habits of minke whales) need to be taken into account. Not only all that, the Scientific Committee isn't even sure how many species of minke whales exist in the Antarctic! Only one thing was certain after the calm, clear presentation of the scientists' deliberations... Japan's entire case for killing minke whales under its so-called "scientific" whaling programme has been shot down. The word used to characterise Japan's claims by the chair of the Scientific Committee was "implausible". Enough said.

A note of caution. While the whalers certainly took blows to the body on the first day of this meeting, they are by no means down. There are major hurdles ahead over the next fews days, especially the question of whether the Commission decides there is now enough "certainly" about safety issues (i.e. that whales can be killed without endangering populations) for it to put in place a management scheme that will lead directly to the renewal of commercial whaling. The debate over the"RMS" issue will be hot and heavy.

Day 2 - Wed, 5th July

The second day of this year's IWC meeting (in Adelaide) opened with debate on one of the hottest issues, the proposal to establish a South Pacific whale sanctuary, and brought out a swarm of media to cover it. This is the first IWC meeting that has allowed the media access to all Plenary sessions, and they were out in full force this morning... with a dozen tv cameras pointed at speakers, along with the giant still lenses of the paparazzi and old fashioned print reporters standing at the side, hand writing notes as the debate flowed. This was one of the most passionate debates ever held at the IWC, with New Zealand and Australia forming one pole and Japan's Caribbean block forming the other. At the end of New Zealand's plea, their entire delegation stood and sang a traditional Maori song of greeting and respect. It was to no avail. When the vote came, 18 nations voted in favour of the sanctuary, 11 opposed, there were four abstentions, and two nations were absent from the from (one on either side). Here's the full list...

  • YES: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, India, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA;
  • NO: Antigua & Barbuda, Peoples Republic of China, Denmark, Dominica, Grenada, Republic of Guinea, Japan, Norway, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & Grenada;
  • ABSTAINED: Ireland, Republic of Korea, Oman, Russian Federation;
  • ABSENT: Italy, Solomon Islands.

The session ended immediately after the vote, and the crowd flooded outside, to be greetind by a silent crowd of whale supporters wearing black arm bands and linking arms, many of them in tears.

Doubtless, this was the saddest day of this meeting, though the outcome was not entirely unexpected, because so many hopes and hearts were riding on it.

The afternoon session of Day Two provided a huge contrast to the morning's intensity, with a virtual absence of media in the room. Infractions of IWC rules were dealt with with a gentle touch... the discussion bore little resemblance to the angry debate of last year that followed the killing of a humpback mother and baby in Bequia, the Carribean island accorded "aboriginal" status by the Commission, despite a blatant repetition of the illegal act... this year the debate was over the semantics of "infractions", not the killings.

Enviromental issues, only recently recognised by the IWC as relevant to whales, and clearly amounting to a boring sidebar to some, took up the remainder of the day. The most revealing discussion was about contaminants found in whale meat & organs. Here's what the Commissioner for Monaco had to say on the subject:

"There is mounting evidence from the scientific front that a diet based substantially on the meat and organs of cetaceans acts as a vector for various contaminants, particularly the organics and heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium. We do welcome the attention placed by the Scientific Committee on these matters, particularly since we know from recent studies that these compounds, PCBs, dioxins, methyl mercury and cadmium, bioaccumulate in the fattty tissues of cetaceans in much greater concentrations than in fish. In other words, to paraphrase a famous label found on cigarette packs, it is fair to say at this stage that consuming whale products may be dangerous to your health. For instance, recent toxicological studies have revealed unacceptable dioxin and mercury levels in many cetacean products that are found in markets. Mercury levels have been found to exceed the toxic threshold by 1600 times in whale meat sold in Japan, particularly as bacon blubber, and dioxin levels exceed the acceptable level by 170 times. Now, Mr. Chairman, who in his, or in her right mind, would wish to get poisoned? Surely not the aboriginal whalers, their wives, children, babies, surely not the innocent consumers who may not be aware of the risk."

Day 3 - Thu, 6th July

The highlight (or low point) of this day was the adoption of a resolution that will see the RMS (Revised Management Scheme) "fast tracked". The IWC Secretary has been given the job of producing draft text by this coming November, and an intercessional meeting hosted by Japan will be held next February, with the aim of producing a final text to be agreed to at next year's meeting. The resolution was proposed by Sweden & supported by many of the "like-minded" nations (that have recently taken on the label "mushy minded" because of their wavering efforts on behalf of whales).

The stage is now almost set for a resumption of commercial whaling, though the beginning point may still be several years away. As bad as things are, they would have been a lot worse had it not been for interventions by New Zealand and several other nations that changed the language of the resolution sufficiently to make it possible for new elements to be introduced into the RMS that will strengthen monitoring provisions.

There's an excellent analysis of the situation in Eco Vol. LII No. 5... check it out at

On a brighter note, and not unexpectedly, Japan lost twice on this day. The issues related to Japan's "scientific whaling", long the subject of criticism within the Commission. This time, Japan proposed a radical expansion of its "research", adding two new species, sperm and brydes whales, to the hundreds of minkes it kills annually in the name of science (with the meat ending up being sold). The proposals were roundly criticised by many nations, and two resolutions condemning them were passed by wide majorities. It will surprise no-one if Japan simply ignores the wish of the Commission, as it has done for years.

Day 4 - Fri, 7th July

This was the last day of the meeting. The most dramatic scene took place at a lunch time press conference at which Caribbean NGOs revealed evidence that Dominica has been receiving large amounts of aid from Japan ($15 million USD) in exchange for votes supporting Japan at the IWC and other international fora. There has recently been a change of government in Dominica, the old government being defeated at the polls partly over the issue of votes for aid. The new cabinet immediately adopted a different policy from its predecessor, instructing the Dominican commissioner to abstain at the year's IWC meeting (i.e. not to support or oppose Japan). The instructions were ignored, and Dominica continued to vote with Japan.

Apparently, the new Prime Minister personally intervened and reversed the decision of the Cabinet. In response, the new Fisheries Minister has resigned. The revelation about Dominca came as no surprise to most observers, but it certaily caught the attention of the media, as the press conference was crowded with cameras and reporters. Naturally, Japan has denied the allegations.

Back inside the meeting, Japan won a vote over the venue for the 2002 meeting, soundly defeating New Zealand in a secret ballot. The Swedish Commissioner was installed as the new chairman, a new vice chariman (the Danish Commissioner) was elected, and long-time IWC Secretary Dr. Ray Gambell, who is retiring, said farewell to a standing ovation.

Very little positive for whales happened at this meeting. Symptomatic of the way things went was one of the last votes, on a resolution calling for establisment of scientific procedures (using genetic techniques) for monitoring origins and tracking whale products "at all levels of the distribution chain". The resolution failed by two votes, with a long list of "mushy minded" nations abstaining... among them, Sweden, Switzerland, Mexico, Spain, and South Africa. It became very clear at this meeting that the defenders of whales are losing ground on every front. The whalers clearly won this Adelaide round.

Publisher's note: Dr. Paul Spong is founder and director of Orcalab on Hanson Island in Vancouver, B.C., and a pioneer in whale research and whale protection. His research on dolphins and orcas began in 1967, and led him to become a founding member of the "Save-the-Whales" movement and to lead Greenpeace campaigns against commercial whaling. This work culminated in the worldwide moratorium that is still in effect under the International Whaling Commission.

Email: Paul Spong

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