Earth Island Institute

ECO: The environmental voice at the IWC

ECO is published by Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project at the meeting of the International Whaling Commission on behalf of environmental and animal welfare organizations around the globe.

For further information, please contact: Mark J. Palmer, Associate Director, Earth Island Institute, International Marine Mammal Project.

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Volume LXIV · Panama City, Panama · No. 2 · Tuesday July 3, 2012
Acrobat .pdf of issue

Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling Needs Complete Review by IWC

In the case of Western Atlantic Humpback whales, we have a commercial economic activity at one end (Whale-Watching (WW) along the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean) and a supposedly non-commercial one at the other (Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) in Greenland).

Suppose that there was legalized commercial whaling going on at one end (maybe along with WW and pseudo-ASW whaling). The IWC rules would allow one kind of whaling and not the other on the same stock, regardless of the moratorium, if the New Management Procedure set a zero limit for the former. I think the whole purpose of ASW rules is being lost.

It seems to be forgotten that the ASW was invented late in the game (about 1976) and for one purpose only. In 1975, a scheme was adopted for setting zero limits for commercial operations that had caused whale populations to be reduced to below an estimated 54 percent, by number, of the initial size of the pre-exploited stock. At that time the bowhead whale was a Protected Species, by IWC regulations, such few as there were, but applied only to commercial whaling, by default.

(The Soviet catching of gray whales was an entirely special case, introduced in the 1946 negotiations at the last minute, because the Soviet authorities were catching whales, using large-type catchers on behalf of their aboriginal people, because—they said—the whalers had been denied their “traditional” right whales, which had been almost exterminated by European and US commercial whaling, and they were left with gray whales that they could not safely hunt with the old methods. At that time the gray whale also was a Protected Species, but now of course it is considered fully recovered and cannot possibly be qualified to be “Protected,” either under the old Protected Species rules or by the NMP, nor likely by the RMP if that were ever to be applied.)

As regards the application of the NMP to the bowhead, the US made a reasonable argument that a subsistence activity would not be forced to end just because a commercial rule had been adopted that caused whaling to pause, not because the population had become “endangered” (accepted wisdom was, and still is, that a whale population is not threatened with extinction merely because it has been reduced to half of its original size), but because the IWC had adopted a policy that, so far as commercial exploitation was concerned, would aim to keep stocks at about 60 percent of their virgin size (MSY) and allow those that had been reduced to substantially below that level to recover to it.

So it was proposed that aboriginal subsistence whaling could continue on stocks depleted to below 54 percent (which was thought then was the case for the bowhead). Then the question was: what is the bottom line?, and the Scientific Committee (SC) was instructed to determine such a number or percentage. But that was a question not open to scientific decision, not then and probably not now or ever. As always the SC’s opinion was arbitrary and modified by whether individuals favored whaling or did not, personally—one of the many cases in the IWC when “scientific advice” is confused with “opinions of scientists”.

It was also argued that if ASW was to be permitted on depleted stocks for which commercial whaling was prohibited, then the ASW catch would be such as to at least allow recovery, albeit more slowly than would be expected from an outright ban, hence less than the estimated current sustainable catch. In this connection, it is worth recalling that the ICRW 1946 asserts that: “it is the common interest to achieve the optimum level of whale populations as rapidly as possible without causing nutritional distress”. At this point the idea of “nutritional” (or even “religious”) NEED was introduced, and the matter instantly became one of political debate and even disinformation. Since then ALL the arguments about sustainability and recovery and SERIOUSLY helping the survival of aboriginal peoples dependent on whaling have been virtually abandoned.

The ASW rules and practices that that add so much dysfunction to the IWC are an anachronistic absurdity. NGOs should, I think, work together to force the IWC to review them from top to bottom and thus move into the 21st century. It could do worse than begin with a look at the definition given in the League of Nations Convention of 1931. The Geneva Convention explicitly did not apply to “aborigines dwelling on the coasts of contracting states and using only canoes or similar small craft, not carrying firearms, not in the employment of persons other than aborigines, and not under contract to deliver the products of their whaling to any third person.” This approach persisted, with modifications of wording, through the subsequent agreements, but the prohibition of firearms was subsequently dropped. This meant that the protection of all right whale species in the 1931 convention did not apply to aborigines, nor the protection of the gray whale that was introduced in the revised Convention of 1937.

For some time the IWC Scientific Committee has been working on a Revised Management Procedure for ASW comparable to the agreed commercial RMP. One might hope that this would contribute to rationalization of the ASW discussions, but I have serious doubts that it will constructively do so. That is because in that same period the SC has been induced to spend time discussing ways of making the agreed RMP Catch Limit Algorithm (CLA) less conservative, because the remaining commercial whaling countries, especially Norway, want to justify bigger catches in the short term—which is the only “term” they are really interested in. The approaches to this end included “retuning” the CLA parameters, extending the already unrealistically long management horizon from one century to two, fiddling trivially with ways of dealing with unbalanced catches by sex, and so in any other ways their cleverest scientists can think of. In such a “culture” of the purposes of “science,” it is extremely unlikely that just attention will be given to the fates and wellbeing of whales that are the subjects of ASW.

We all know that meat from baleen whales is sold openly, including especially to tourists, in Greenland and St Vincent & the Grenadines. It really is time to end the disruptive ceremony of allocating multi-year catch limits to meet subsistence “needs” of a few people who claim special privileges, forever, because they are or, in some cases, falsely claim to be, “aboriginal.” Many more of us have suffered, over the centuries, from the long-term direct and indirect consequences of colonialism. It is time we all pulled together to save humanity as a whole from the long-term consequences of ongoing environmental destruction, especially the despoliation of ocean life.

by Dr. Sidney Holt