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International Whaling Commission

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International Whaling Commission

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is an international body set up by the terms of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), which was signed in Washington, D.C., United States, on December 2, 1946 to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry".


In 1982 the IWC adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling. Currently, Japan, Russia, and a number of other nations oppose this moratorium. The IWC allows non-zero whaling quotas for aboriginal subsistence and also member nations may issue 'Scientific Permits' to their citizens. Japan has issued such permits since 1986, Norway and Iceland whale under objection to the moratorium and issue their own quotas. In 1994, the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was created by the IWC.

The main duty of the IWC is to keep under review and revise as necessary the measures laid down in the Schedule to the Convention which govern the conduct of whaling throughout the world. These measures, among other things, provide for the complete protection of certain species; designate specified areas as whale sanctuaries; set limits on the numbers and size of whales which may be taken; prescribe open and closed seasons and areas for whaling; and prohibit the capture of suckling calves and female whales accompanied by calves. The compilation of catch reports and other statistical and biological records is also required.

In addition, the Commission encourages, co-ordinates and funds whale research, publishes the results of scientific research and promotes studies into related matters such as the humaneness of the killing operations.

Structure and membership

The IWC was created by voluntary agreement among the member nations to function as the sole governing body with authority to act under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which is an international environmental agreement signed in 1946 in order to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry" and to implement its economic and environmental goals. The role of the Commission is to periodically review and revise the Schedule to the Convention, controlling the conduct of whaling by setting the protection of certain species; designating areas as whale sanctuaries; setting limits on the numbers and size of catches; prescribing open and closed seasons and areas for whaling; methods and intensity of whaling, types of gear to be used, methods of measurement and maximum catch returns. Under its constitutive document, the IWC is given the task of adopting regulations "to provide for the conservation, development, and optimum utilization of the whale resources" with the condition that such regulations "shall be based on scientific findings."

The headquarters of the IWC is in Impington, near Cambridge, England. The Commission has three main committees — Scientific, Technical, and Finance and Administration.

Participation in the IWC is not limited to states involved in whaling. Membership in the IWC has doubled since 2001 with an average of almost 6 states per year joining the IWC from 2002 to 2008. As of July 2013 there were 88 members (down from previous membership due to the withdraw of Greece effective from 30 June 2013).

Traditionally, the IWC meets annually, usually in May or June. Meetings are composed of one voting representative (called a Commissioner) from each state party who may be accompanied by experts and advisors. They are generally extremely divisive — demonstrating a complete split on all major issues between the pro-whaling nations and their supporters and the anti-whaling nations. The IWC's Rules of Procedure allow non-parties and intergovernmental organisations to attend the meetings and to be represented by observers if they have submitted a written request to the Secretary thirty days before the meeting or if they have attended previous meetings. Non-governmental organisations that maintain offices in more than three countries may also attend the annual meetings of the IWC.

In 2012, the Commission agreed to move from annual to biennial Commission Meetings. The Scientific Committee continues to meet annually. In years where both meetings are held, a period of at least 100 days separates the two. This is to allow time to read and digest the reports of the Scientific Committee Meeting, before the Commission Meeting begins.

Annual meetings

Members of the International Whaling Commission have met every year since 1949, in addition to having occasional intersessional 'special meetings' (these are not 'annual meetings').

In recent years, the meetings have attracted international media attention due to the growth of the anti-whaling movement.

The IWC also holds occasional "special meetings" (there were five between 1949 and 2007).

From 2012 onwards, it was decided that the annual Commission Meetings would go to biennial Commission Meetings, while the IWC Scientific Committee would still meet annually.

For a full list of the venues of the IWC's annual and special meetings : see here

1982 moratorium

The 1970s saw the beginning of the global anti-whaling movement. In 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm adopted a proposal that recommended a ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling to allow whale stocks to recover. The reports of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1977 and 1981 identified many species of whales as being in danger of extinction.

At the same time, a number of non-whaling and anti-whaling states began to join the IWC and eventually gained a majority over the whaling nations. Some countries who were previously major whaling forces, like the United States, became strong proponents of the anti-whaling cause. These nations called for the IWC to reform its policies and to incorporate newly discovered scientific data regarding whales in its proposed regulations.

On 23 July 1982, members of the IWC voted by the necessary three-quarters majority to implement a pause on commercial whaling. The relevant text reads:

Notwithstanding the other provisions of paragraph 10, catch limits for the killing for commercial purposes of whales from all stocks for the 1986 coastal and the 1985/86 pelagic seasons and thereafter shall be zero. This provision will be kept under review, based upon the best scientific advice, and by 1990 at the latest the Commission will undertake a comprehensive assessment of the effects of this decision on whale stocks and consider modification of this provision and the establishment of other catch limits.

The measure passed by 25 votes to seven, with five abstentions.

Japan, Norway, Peru, and the Soviet Union (later replaced by Russia) lodged formal objections, since the moratorium was not based on advice from the Scientific Committee. Japan and Peru later withdrew their objections (Japan's withdrawal was precipitated by the US threatening to reduce their fishing quota within US waters if the objection was not withdrawn. However, by 1988 the US had eliminated Japanese fishing quotas anyway. It was after this that the Japanese began scientific whaling.). In 2002, Iceland was allowed to rejoin IWC with a reservation to the moratorium (Iceland withdrew from IWC in 1992), but this reservation is not recognised as a valid objection by many IWC members. In addition, Italy, Mexico, and New Zealand do not consider the ICRW to be in force between their countries and Iceland. None of these countries, however, has mounted any legal challenge to Iceland's membership of the IWC.

As the moratorium applies only to commercial whaling, whaling under the scientific-research and aboriginal-subsistence provisions of the ICRW is still allowed. However, environmental groups dispute the claim of research "as a disguise for commercial whaling, which is banned." Since 1994, Norway, has been whaling commercially and Iceland began hunting commercially in September 2006. Since 1986, Japan has been whaling under scientific research permits. The US and several other nations are whaling under aboriginal whaling auspices. Norway lodged a protest to the zero catch limits in 1992 and is not bound by them. Anti-whaling countries and lobbies accuse Japan's scientific whaling of being a front for commercial whaling. The Japanese government argues that the refusal of anti-whaling nations to accept simple head counts of whale population as a measure of recovery of whale species justifies its continuing studies on sex and age of population distributions, and further points out that IWC regulations specifically require that whale meat obtained by scientific whaling not go to waste. Japan, on the other hand, has raised objections to U.S. aboriginal subsistence whaling, generally seen to be in retaliation to anti-whaling nations' (including the United States') objections to aboriginal subsistence whaling for several Japanese fishing communities, which traditionally hunted whales until the imposition of the moratorium.

In May 1994, the IWC also voted to create the 11,800,000-square-mile (31,000,000 km2) Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. The vote to adopt the sanctuary resolution was twenty-three in favour, one opposed (Japan) and six abstaining.

Enforcement under the IWC

IWC is a voluntary international organization and is not backed up by treaty. Therefore, the IWC, in essence, is a voluntary organization which has substantial practical limitations on its authority. First, any member countries are free to simply leave the organization and declare themselves not bound by it if they so wish. Second, any member state may opt out of any specific IWC regulation by lodging a formal objection to it within 90 days of the regulation coming into force (such provisions are common in international agreements, on the logic that it is preferable to have parties remain within the agreements than opt out altogether). Third, the IWC has no ability to enforce any of its decisions through penalty imposition.


There has been concern that the conflict between those who seek renewed utilisation of whales and those who seek protection for every whale has placed a dangerous strain on the IWC. Oran Young and eight other noted scholars in the field assert that "changes in the current [IWC] arrangements are inevitable" and that "the killing of whales for human consumption will continue, whether whalers operate within a reconstructed international whaling regime, opt to join alternative arrangements like NAMMCO, or seek to establish a hybrid system". The BBC also reports that "[c]onservationists argue that the IWC should be devoting far more of its attention to issues such as whales being hit by ships, the effects of pollution and climate change, and the pressures that drive species such as the baiji (or Yangtse river dolphin) to extinction. As things stand, it cannot. The logjam of hunting has to be overcome first."

Allegation of politicising science

The pro-whaling nations accuse the IWC of basing these decisions upon "political and emotional" factors rather than upon scientific knowledge given that the IWC prohibits all whaling, even though its own Scientific Committee has concluded since 1991 that quotas on some species of whale would be sustainable. They argue the IWC has swayed from its original purpose and is attempting, under the guise of conservation, to essentially grant whales an entitlement to life via an absolute protection from being killed by humans for commercial purposes.

Non-IWC whaling nations have expressed similar sentiments. Canada withdrew from the IWC after the vote to impose the moratorium, claiming that "[t]he ban was inconsistent with measures that had just been adopted by the IWC that were designed to allow harvests of stocks at safe levels."

After the moratorium came into force in 1986, the Scientific Committee was commissioned to review the status of the whale stocks and develop a calculation method for setting safe catch limits. At the IWC's annual meeting in 1991, the Scientific Committee submitted its finding that there existed approximately 761,000 minke whales in Antarctic waters, 87,000 in the northeast Atlantic, and 25,000 in the North Pacific. With such populations, it was submitted, 2000 minke whales could be harvested annually without endangering the population. Despite this, the IWC Plenary Committee voted to maintain the blanket moratorium on whaling, arguing that formulas for determining allowable catches had not yet been adequately evaluated.

In 1991, acting on the recommendation of the Scientific Committee, the IWC adopted a computerized formula, the Revised Management Procedure (RMP), for determining allowable catches of some whale species. Despite the fact that the RMP indicated that it would be possible to authorize a catch that year, the moratorium was not lifted. The IWC noted the need to agree on minimum standards for data, to prepare guidelines on the conduct of population surveys, and to devise and approve a system of measures for monitoring and inspection.

The IWC Plenary committee adopted the RMP in 1994, but decided not to implement it before an inspection and control scheme had been developed. This scheme, together with the RMP, is known as the Revised Management Scheme (RMS). Since then it has been all but impossible for the member countries in the Plenary committee to agree on an RMS.

Australia is the only member country of IWC who has officially announced its opposition to any RMS and is therefore not participating in the discussions. Anti-whaling NGOs, such as Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace, are also generally against the RMS.

Ray Gambell, then the Secretary of the IWC, agreed at least in part with the argument of the pro-whaling nations: "In all reasonableness, we would have to say that a commercial catch could be taken without endangering [Minke] stocks." In June 1993 the Chairman of the Scientific Committee, Dr Philip Hammond, resigned in protest to what he saw as contempt of the Scientific Committee's recommendations. The same year Norway became the only state in the world to resume commercial whaling, on the grounds that they had objected to, and thus opted out, of the moratorium.

IWC membership

The purpose of the IWC as specified in its constitution is "in safeguarding for future generations the great natural resources represented by the whale stocks;" and the original members consisted only of the 15 whale-hunting nations. However, since the late 1970s and early 1980s, many countries which have no previous history of whaling (some of which are landlocked such as Switzerland and Mongolia) have joined the IWC. This shift was first initiated by Sir Peter Scott, the then head of the World Wildlife Fund. Labelling the IWC a "butchers' club", he mounted lobbying campaigns in developed countries with support from the green lobby and anti whaling block of IWC members to change the composition of the IWC's membership, which was instrumental in obtaining the necessary three-quarters majority vote to implement the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. This campaign triggered the first accusations of vote-buying in IWC. According to Scott's biographer, Elspeth Huxley, China's decision to join was influenced by a World Wildlife Fund promise to provide $1 million to fund a panda reserve. Dr. Michael Tillman, former IWC Commissioner of the United States, said in a radio interview that "there was what we called 'common knowledge,' that a number of countries joined and that their dues and the travel support was reportedly due to conservation groups providing it. So that, in a sense, one could say that the conservation groups set out a strategy that the Japanese copied."

Since the moratorium was adopted, the support for it has dropped from a 75% majority to a 50-50 split, with many of the countries initially recruited by the anti-whaling side now voting with the pro-whaling block. (A 75% majority is needed to overturn the moratorium.) Anti-whaling campaign groups and some governments claim that the Japanese Fisheries Agency has carried out a programme of "vote-buying" - i.e. offering aid to poorer countries in return for them joining the IWC and supporting Japanese positions on whaling. Japan claims, however, that this accusation itself is politically motivated because Japan's oversea aids are not only given to pro-whaling countries. Japan has given US$320 million in overseas aid to Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Guinea, Morocco, Panama, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St Kitts and Nevis and the Solomon Islands. Caribbean countries have consistently sided with Japan in each IWC vote since 2001 though the Caribbean nations admit the rules may possibly impact on their fishing activities as well. Pacific countries' voting patterns vary even for each motion, as they are lobbied by neighbouring pro-whaling Japan and anti-whaling New Zealand and Australia. Greenpeace alleges that Japan's aid activities and these countries voting patterns are correlated. These allegations of tying aid to votes are based on public admissions by government officials both inside and outside Japan, as well as an analysis of voting patterns compared to Japanese Fisheries Aid received. In 2005, The Environmental Investigation Agency approached Lord Ashcroft of the UK to use his influence in Belize to assure support for the anti whaling camp. It was reported that Ashcroft paid Belize's IWC subscription fees:

"Every month I'm on the water somewhere," he says. "I've grown a close affinity, not just for whales, but for dolphins and porpoises. So it wasn't difficult for me to approach the Belizean authorities with such a brief." He discovered that Belize's annual subscription to the IWC — £10,000 — had lapsed and came up with the cash. That backing yielded swift results when a crucial vote was won by the anti-whaling nations by a majority of one.

Both sides accuse each other of using underhanded tactics to pack the commission with countries sympathetic to their position. Edwin Snagg, the IWC commissioner for St Vincent and the Grenadines stated, "It's a question of respect,....Because you are small and because you are underdeveloped there is this view and there is this feeling that you can easily be bought and you can easily be sold. We in the Caribbean feel highly offended." Moreover, there are no developing countries who support an anti-whaling stance. The BBC reported that "Some countries recently admitted to the European Union have been advised by a "word in the ear" that it would be "a good idea" for them to join the IWC. Some activists believe that Britain and its fellow EU old-timers such as France and Germany should recruit all member states into the Commission." In Australia, National Nine News reported that "New Zealand is questioning pro-whaling support among Pacific Island states with the opposition calling for a rethink of foreign aid." It is expected that more countries in the future will join IWC including some landlocked countries. Currently, there are 8 landlocked IWC members. Mali and Mongolia voted with other pro-whaling countries. Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Switzerland and San Marino voted with other anti-whaling countries.

Both pro- and anti-whaling countries claim that their recruiting activities are restricted to lobbying and persuasion based on the merits of their cause. Anti-whaling campaigners argue that scientific studies are not currently clear enough to warrant resumption of commercial whaling. Moreover, there are various other issues such as welfare of whales which is beyond the simple matter of conservation. (See The arguments for and against whaling) These issues have global relevance which is not restricted only to whaling and whaling countries. Moreover, public opinion in many anti-whaling countries is solidly behind the governmental position on whaling within the IWC. Pro-whaling countries, on the other hand, argue that the public's anti-whaling stance is often based on misinformation – a 2003 article in The Economist noted that surveys in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States had found that a majority of respondents incorrectly believe that all whale species are endangered.

Moreover, coastal countries have a vested interest in conserving their fish stocks which may be threatened by whales (this claim is strongly contested by the anti-whaling lobby). Japan, particularly when lobbying African nations, argues that diversification of the anti-whaling argument outside of conservation is a threat to their national interest. Exploitation of wildlife resources (such as elephant ivory, sea turtles or primates) are restricted supposedly on the ground of sustainable management. Alleged filibustering of the Revised Management Scheme and diversification of arguments outside of conservation by the anti-whaling side is alleged to be a sign that anti-whaling countries no longer adhere to this principle (of sustainable management and exploitation of natural resources). The Japanese argue that the African countries and whaling countries have a shared interest in preventing the principle of sustainable management being exploited as a cover for animal rights arguments:

Owing to the economic power of the US and the UK, CITES was forced to list perfectly healthy species of whales (over the objections of its secretariat), along with legitimately endangered species, on its banned list. This has severely eroded CITES' credibility, especially in the world's developing countries, where hundreds of animal species are mortally endangered.

At the London IWC meeting in 2001 Sandra Lee-Vercoe, the New Zealand delegate to the commission, accused Japan of buying votes. The Japanese delegate denied the allegations:

Japan gives foreign aid to more than 150 nations around the world and that includes strong anti-whaling nations such as Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and others who receive far more aid than the Caribbean nations [..] If Japan was buying votes, you would see 150 nations in the IWC and as a consequence the unnecessary moratorium would have been lifted years ago.

Komatsu also said that Caribbean countries naturally supported pro-whaling resolutions as they are whaling countries themselves (mostly of smaller cetaceans) and that the New Zealand commissioner was inventing "fairy stories".

In response to this rebuttal, anti-whaling groups cite several statements who argue otherwise. In an interview reported in The Observer newspaper in May 2001, Atherton Martin, Dominica's former Environment and Fisheries Minister who publicly oppose whaling, said:

They [Japan] make it clear, that if you don't vote for them, they will have to reconsider the aid. They use money crudely to buy influence.

Greenpeace also quotes Tongan parliamentarian Samiu K Vaipulu as saying at a workshop on the proposed South Pacific Whale Sanctuary in Samoa that Japan had linked whale votes to aid. Lester Bird, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, had said:

So as long as the whales are not an endangered species, I don't see any reason why if we are able to support the Japanese and the quid pro quo is that they will give us some assistance. I'm not going to be a hypocrite.

In an interview with Australian ABC television in July 2001, Japanese Fisheries Agency official Maseyuku Komatsu described Minke Whales as "cockroaches of the sea". The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he further stated "lacking military might, his country had to use the tools of diplomacy and promises of development aid to "get appreciation of Japan's position" on whaling. Billions of yen have flowed to countries that joined the IWC from both pro and anti whaling countries. "It already brings back the time when we were colonised," says Clarice Charles, of Grenada. "Would these rich nations give a poor fisherman a revolving loan or a grant or a gift so that he can buy [a tourist boat] to go whale watching?"

In Japan, especially within conservative media outlets (the most vocal ones being Sankei Shimbun and Bungei Shunju), it is argued that countries which oppose commercial whaling altogether should not be in the IWC at all and allege that the anti-whaling side has subverted the purpose of the IWC by exploiting the (lack of) membership requirements. Moreover, they point out that the anti-whaling lobby within the IWC are also led by wealthy developed nations and are equally susceptible to accusations of vote-buying and influence-peddling. The anti-whaling side within IWC are accused of using conservation as a cover for their ideological opposition to whaling itself, which mirrors the accusation from the anti-whaling side that Japan's scientific whaling is a cover for commercial whaling. Since 2000, 29 new countries have joined the IWC, 18 of them pro-whaling, 11 anti. Japan notes that major anti-whaling nations such as the U.S. Australia, UK and New Zealand also donate aid to poor countries on the IWC and wield far more influence than Japan alone and thus they could easily be accused of the same tactics. Moreover, Japan is pushing to have secret ballot voting. Had the allegations of vote-buying been true, such proposal would run counter to its alleged objective because it is impossible to monitor so called client members' vote. From Japan's point of view, secret ballot voting is the only way to counter the influence pedling of anti whaling side which Japan see as having more powerful collective influence within the IWC. One of the new 2006 members, Israel, voted consistently with the anti-whaling bloc, was asked specifically to join by the US. Belize, a country previously accused of having their vote bought and paid for by Japan by a number of countries and NGO's, shifted side and consistently voted with the anti-whaling block at the 2006 IWC meeting. Anti-whaling nations oppose secret ballot voting on the grounds that it is without precedent in other international bodies and would have removed accountability and made behind-the-scenes deals between delegations more likely. St Kitts and Nevis Commissioner, Cedric Liburd, pointed out to various anti whaling counties during debate on the secret ballot vote on the first day of the 2006 meeting in St Kitts that it was extremely hypocritical of such countries to pontificate on the need for transparency within the IWC by open voting when such countries quite happily voted via secret ballot in CITES, a similar management body.

Role of the United States

The effectiveness of IWC decisions (at least on smaller whaling states) may be explained in large part by the fact that the United States was willing to act unilaterally in support of them. The pro whaling nations often see the U.S.'s propensity to act outside the IWC framework as "bullying" tactics, while the green and the conservation lobby tend to applaud the U.S.

The United States first incorporated the IWC's régime into domestic law in the 1971 Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman's Protective Act of 1967. This amendment provides that when the Secretary of Commerce determines that the nationals of a foreign country are diminishing the effectiveness of an international fishery conservation program (including the IWC's program), the Secretary shall certify this fact to the President. The President then has the discretion to ban importation of fishing products from the offending country. The United States has threatened sanctions under the Pelly Amendment on a number of occasions. In November 1974, pressure from the United States contributed to Japan and the Soviet Union complying with the 1974-1975 quotas. Similarly, in December 1978, Chile, South Korea and Peru acceded to the IWC after the United States certified them under the Amendment. The threatened certification of Spain also led that country to observe a Fin Whale quota to which it had objected.

These measures were further strengthened by the 1979 Packwood-Magnuson Amendment to the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. It provides that, when the Secretary of Commerce certifies that a country is diminishing the effectiveness of the work of the IWC, the Secretary of State must reduce that country's fishing allocation in U.S. waters by at least 50%. Certification under the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment also serves as certification under the Pelly Amendment. The threatened application in 1980 of the Packwood-Magnuson and Pelly Amendments led South Korea to agree to follow IWC guidelines restricting the use of cold (i.e., non-explosive) harpoons. Faced with similar pressure, the Republic of China (Taiwan) placed a complete ban on whaling in 1981. Without United States support, it's possible that the 1986 moratorium would have been substantially limited, as nations such as Iceland, Japan, Norway and the Soviet Union would have opted out and continued commercial whaling.

North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission

The moratorium on commercial whaling led Iceland to withdraw in protest from IWC, as it had threatened to do if the moratorium was extended. Both Japan and Norway also threatened to leave the organisation. In April 1992, the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) was established by the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway under the Agreement on Cooperation in Research, Conservation and Management of Marine Mammals in the North Atlantic. The document clearly responded to what the drafters regarded as inappropriate whale protectionist tendencies of the IWC. Guðmundur Eiríksson of Iceland stated at NAMMCO's inaugural meeting that the organisation was established in part out of dissatisfaction with the IWC's zero-catch quota. Although NAMMCO does not conflict directly with the obligations of membership states under the IWC, it nonetheless presented a challenge to the legitimacy of the IWC.


International Whaling Commission Wikipedia

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