As the International Whaling Commission prepares to hold its 62nd annual meeting from June 21 in Agadir, Morocco, there are strenuous attempts by a few nations to get the moratorium on the slaughter of whales lifted. The 24-year-old ban on commercial whaling has become an emotive issue for Japan, which cites historic and cultural reasons to justify its abhorrent hunts. There are some disturbing indications that behind the scenes, the cosmetics and food supplement industries may also be driving the agenda. The ban has not deterred Japan from sending factory ships each year into faraway Antarctic waters to hunt minke whales, and process their meat for sale. It has done so by invoking the IWC provision that allows the unilateral issue of permits to kill whales for scientific experiments. Iceland also used this loophole to launch a similar programme four years ago, while Norway has resorted to an objection clause to claim exemption from the moratorium. Such reasoning has become wearisome to the global conservation community, which finds little science emerging from the harpoons. The systematic violation of the ban has, on the other hand, seriously eroded the credibility of the IWC.
It would be monumental folly to accept the ‘compromise' proposal circulated in April by two senior IWC executives, including the chairman, to partially lift the ban on whaling commerce. Under that proposal, there will be small kill quotas for the existing whaling nations — Iceland, Norway, and Japan — and closer monitoring. The apprehension is that this measure could open the door to an enlarged whaling programme, attracting new entrants and marking a return to the 20th century horrors of large-scale massacres. What the IWC should really sponsor is more science for conservation. The argument for true research is forcefully made by Australia, which has petitioned the International Court of Justice on Japan's violations. A government-funded 2009 study titled “Conservation and Values: Global Cetaceans Summary Report” points out that only a few of the 86 species recognised by the scientific committee of the IWC have been closely studied. There is a major void in knowledge about the biology, ecology, and status of the others. For instance, although the pro-whaling group says there are enough minkes to allow hunting, the Red List of the conservation body IUCN says data on the species are “deficient.” Meanwhile, threats to whales from other human-made causes, such as fisheries conflicts, noise disturbance, ship strikes, and pollution are growing. The Agadir meeting will serve a useful purpose if it can strengthen science and consider ways to enforce the ban.