Chris Parsons is a seasoned veteran of the International Whaling Commission’s ins and outs. He was appointed to the IWC’s scientific committee in 1999, and has been navigating the treacherous waters of political negotiations and international diplomacy ever since. Chris is also an Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University and a contributor to Southern Fried Science. The first thing that Chris was quick to point out about the IWC is that it’s not a regulatory agency tasked with conserving global whale populations. If it were, its actions would be quite different. Rather, the IWC was established by the terms of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), which was signed by whaling nations in the mid 1940s to ensure the whaling industry remains as sustainable as possible. Therefore, the IWC is much more a political and economic body than a conservation-based or scientific one.
According to Dr. Parsons, whaling didn’t really become a significant part of Japan’s economy and society until shortly after their defeat in WWII, when it was adopted as part of a “rebuilding effort” for the country’s population. Countries such as the Unuted States actually encouragred Japanese whaling, since it was a way for the nation to provide food for its citizens without much associated infrastructure (which had been crippled during WWII). Japan essentially “grandfathered” itself in to whaling, and has used the food supply argument together with the research argument (more on that in a bit) as a way to justify its annual whale hunts. And because voting on the IWC is extremely democratic (one vote per country and those are all the rules), it can be quite easy to “recruit” approval votes for your nation’s whaling. Japan has successfully recruited many small, developing nations to their side through financial aid and other “philanthropic” efforts on the part of the Japanese government. While Dr. Parsons mentions that this type of activity is not as common now in the IWC as it used to be, he points out that buying votes is still a frequent practice behind the scenes of the commission. And not just by Japan, but by other large nations (including the U.S.) as well.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. But Nate, you say, didn’t the IWC put a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1985? Isn’t that still in place? How do you know what I’m thinking? Well Gus, yes, the IWC did ban commercial whaling twenty years ago. However, as Dr. Parsons points out, they have yet to couple that ban with the establishment of a “whale task force” charged with enforcing this restriction across 71% of earth’s surface. Until they do, the IWC can’t enforce the ban or even really punish countries that engage in commercial whaling. Since it’s a treaty organization, all the IWC can do is to give nations who violate this ban a frowny-face sticker on their meeting agendas. We at SUFB talk a lot about how difficult it can be to monitor an MPA; imagine how much more difficult it is to monitor the entire ocean with no financial support, and you’ve got a sense of what the IWC is facing.
Now, when the ban on commercial whaling came into effect, members of the IWC were allowed to present “reservations” to this ban. Norway was one such country, and it’s reservation against the ban on commercial whaling allowed the nation to continue hunting whales for profit. These reservations are apparently common within international diplomacy, and are what Dr. Parsons calls “diplomatically tolerated.” Again, nothing much the IWC can do if a member nation doesn’t step in line. Nowadays commercial whaling in Norway is so heavily subsidized that it’s more a form of welfare than an occupation that actually generates revenue. However, it is so ingrained in the culture of many Norwegian communities that many citizens would prefer to hunt whales than take another low-paying job.
Another country that attempted to present a reservation on the moratorium was Iceland, who had left the IWC prior to the ban and returned in 2002. The country returned under the assumption that it would not have to ban its commercial whaling, and the IWC voted as to whether it would allow Iceland back as member with this stipulation. I’ll let Dr. Parsons tell you the rest of the story:
“They had a vote as to whether Iceland could be a member, and the vote passed by one, and after the votes had been processed, the realized that Iceland had actually voted for itself to be a member. Even though it wasn’t actually a member. So some countries don’t actually recognize Iceland as being a member. Yeah it was a big mess up. It’s almost laughable.”
So Iceland is allowed to continue its commercial whaling, at least according the IWC. Similarly to Norway though, Iceland doesn’t draw large amounts of revenue from whaling. In fact, commercial whaling in Iceland is really only financially supported by a single, extremely wealthy individual who owns one large whaling company. However, this individual has been able to drum up enough political and popular support for these activities that whaling has remained an active practice within Iceland. Ironically, Sea Shepherd’s actions against Icelandic whaling vessels has only seemed to strengthen national sentiment against Sea Shepherd and, in turn, for commercial whaling.
The ban on whaling also made an exception for what the IWC referred to as “scientific whaling,” or the killing of whales for research. There is very little authority though, for the IWC, to determine what constitutes valid scientific whaling. While reports on scientific hunts are presented to the IWC’s scientific committee, the author nations are not required to do anything more than take their notes and critiques into consideration for future prospective scientific hunts. And the criticism these nations receive is not always based in scientific fact; many times individual countries will provide feedback on their own report, and will again “recruit” developing nations to provide positive feedback as well. As Dr. Parson puts it, “it’s a little bit like a high school kid is being graded on an essay, and the teacher gives one grade and the kid also grades himself. And the teacher says ‘this is a D essay, it’s awful, the grammar’s dreadful, this is appalling’, and the student says ‘this is an A essay, it’s the best essay ever.’” By the time these reports and the criticisms get to the final examination board, it’s impossible to tell who the critiques (positive or negative) came from.
Now, scientific and commercial whaling should not be confused with subsistence whaling. Many international governments and NGOs choose not to get involved in communities that practice whaling for dietary reasons, because not only do these communities typically have a long history of living off the ocean but they also have specific nutritional needs that are really only satisfied by a diet high in marine mammals.
So what role does science play in addressing issues such as international commercial or scientific whaling? Well, according to Dr. Parsons, not much of one. “Scientists often look at things according to the numbers. Is it sustainable, or is it not sustainable…to quote Facebook, ‘It’s complicated.’” In order to better understand these extremely diverse communities and cultures, Dr. Parsons recommends that any conservationist spend some time with local communities or stakeholders to better understand their lifestyle. Getting to know someone over drinks or a game of soccer makes it much more difficult to let petty politics get in the way of finding common ground with that individual. And for the sake of our ocean’s whales, we need to find that common ground and work towards a more sustainable future.
Enjoy the Podcast!