Controversial New Whaling Quotas Proposed by IWC

A controversial new proposal would allow nations (i.e. Japan, Norway and Iceland) to kill endangered whales. Quotas will be based on politics, not science.

In 1986, commercial whaling was officially banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), an entity established to protect dramatically declining whale stocks. Despite this ban, certain nations, most notably Japan, Norway and Iceland, have continued killing whales due to several loopholes in which the international law, as written, does not apply, such as with whales caught through “by-catch”, which is the accidental capturing of a whales in fishing nets or gear.

Now, a new proposal is being crafted — to be voted on next month at the annual IWC meeting — allowing new quotas for whale kills by these three nations. Controversy is already mounting as critics assert that the new rules would encourage more whale killing, and further, that the proposed quotas are not based on scientific data.

A controversial proposal would allow these three whaling nations to continue whaling for the next decade in exchange for narrowing the loopholes in existing law, but scientists and conservationist are not satisfied and fear that more whales will be killed, not fewer.

What has got many marine scientists concerned is that the new quotas proposed do not seem to be based upon scientific research. The IWC’s charter mandates that all policies be based upon scientific findings. Further, although the IWC proposal spells out the method for calculating sustainable catch levels, it does not mandate that this method be used, but instead will rely on negotiations between the IWC and whaling nations. These negotiated catch quotas would then be fixed for the next decade.

Watch this video (part 1 or 5) about the Icelandic whaling industry (article continues below):


It should be noted the current law provides for a certain amount of captures annually for scientific research. This exemption in the law is still controversial, pitting some scientific interests against conservation organizations (such as the IUCN). The new proposal would also give the IWC greater authority over whale kills for research purposes.

Last year, over 1700 whales were harpooned, half of these by Japan. Two thirds of these were Antarctic minke whales captured in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. Although the new annual quota for minke whales is lower than that count (120 kills per year), conservationists assert that the population is already endangered and that these quotas (not counting by-catch) will possibly drive the species to the edge of extinction.

Minke whale meat kebabs, Reykjavik, Iceland

The new IWC proposal would allow Japan to continue its hunting in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary but would establish an South Atlantic Ocean sanctuary stretching from Brazil (at the equator), south to Tierra del Fuego, and east to West Africa.

The IWC has responded to criticisms by noting that the new proposal calls for whaling vessels to carry tracking beacons and to carry “independent observers” to insure compliance with the new quotas. Further, the new proposal stipulates that whaling nations conduct market research on global consumption of their sold whale meat, and, to establish a DNA registry to insure that only certain species are being killed.

But critics counter that the proposal does not specify who will do these whale meat surveys and maintain the genetic database in a way that assures transparency and thus compliance. And, as always, there is the question of continued funding. If left to the whaling nations themselves, critics complain, conflicts of interest will render these provisions ineffective.

Conservationists have another concern: that the new rules would encourage other nations to begin whaling. Already, South Korea has applied for a permit to start whaling.

In the 1930’s, an estimated 50,000 whales were killed annually. The 1986 ban on whaling has been largely successful in allowing whale stocks to recover. Whaling nations argue that the stocks are sufficiently recovered that quotas should be lifted, while conservation groups insist that many hunted species remain vulnerable, and that the harpoon (many with exploding tips) killing of whales is extremely cruel and thus unethical. This latter assertion is no doubt based upon the large brain size and demonstrated intelligence of many whale species; most famously, Orca and Humpback whales and their smaller relatives, dolphins.

Reference for this article came in part from a news report in Science Magazine (“Deal to Legalize Whaling Would Sideline Science”, by Virginia Morell, Science, 30 April, 2010)

Image Credits: Eighteenth century engraving showing Dutch whalers hunting bowhead whales in the Arctic; minke whale meat kebabs, Reykjavik, Iceland; Public Domain

6 thoughts on “Controversial New Whaling Quotas Proposed by IWC”

  1. eh, i don't like whaling, but I feel it's hypocritical to denounce whaling then scarf down a burger. Current conditions of raising livestock today are far from humane and in my opinion a few thousand whales a year versus raising billions of animals each year in such terrible conditions isn't that bad. As long as they don't go after endangered populations, what's the harm?

  2. I'm unclear to the (supposed) scientific reasons why whales are killed. What are the goal of the research? Those (informal) measurements they take look more like what a fisherman would do after catching a big fish. That information would be relatively easy to glean from photographic methods together with some limited equipment to measure the distance a whale is from the camera.

    1. That's a good question. I definitely wonder what kind of research requires that they kill thousands upon thousands of these humongous creatures…

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