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Whaling Commission Proposes Return to Commercial Whaling

CAMBRIDGE, UK - A working group of the International Whaling Commission today released a draft proposal that would allow the return of commercial whaling. An IWC moratorium on commercial whaling has been in place since 1986.

Minke whale on thedeck of a Japanese whaler. (Photo courtesy Institute of Cetacean Research) The compromise is aimed at unblocking the long-stalled negotiation process between IWC member countries opposed to commercial whaling and those that want to kill whales.

The draft Consensus Decision by the Small Working Group on the Future of IWC would allow only the countries that currently take whales under the "research" provisions of the treaty to hunt them under the proposed management regime. Those countries are Japan, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which together kill some 1,500 whales a year. Indigenous subsistence whaling also would be allowed to continue.

The draft proposal would bring whaling by all 88 member countries under the control of the IWC. Currently, the IWC has no control over whaling under objection/reservation to the treaty or whaling under special permit, the so-called "research whaling."

The proposal establishes caps of takes that are "within sustainable levels" for a 10 year period, although most of those quotas are not specified in the draft document but are marked "TBD," to be decided. The draft comments that catches would be reduced "significantly" from current levels.

Currently, Japan has a six-vessel whaling fleet in Antarctic waters as part of its scientific whaling program. It targets up to 900 minke whales, which are not an endangered species, plus 50 endangered fin whales.

In 2009, Japan took 679 minke whales and one fin whale for a five-month effort in the Southern Ocean, spending much time and effort in clashes with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Japan's goal had been to kill up to 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales.

The IWC proposal states that a fundamental component of the Consensus Decision is that the commission will "focus on the recovery of depleted whale stocks and take actions on key issues, including bycatch, climate change and other environmental threats."

But environmental groups are outraged by the proposal.

From its office in Amsterdam today, Greenpeace International called for the proposal by to be rejected out of hand, describing it as a dangerous throwback to the 20th century when whales where hunted to near extinction.

"The proposal rewards Japan for decades of reprehensible behavior at the International Whaling Commission and in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary," said John Frizell, Head of the Greenpeace Whales Campaign.

"We are at a critical junction for both whaling and ocean conservation," said Frizell. "A return to commercial whaling would not only be a disaster for whales but will send shock waves through international ocean conservation efforts, making it vastly more difficult to protect other rapidly-declining species such as tuna and sharks."

From its headquarters in Gland, Switzerland today, WWF-International said the new draft compromise on whaling "set a dangerous precedent that the international community must reject."

WWF said that while the compromise "contains many positive elements for whale conservation that would help bring the IWC into the 21st Century," the compromise could legitimize whaling by Japan in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

"If there is one single place in the world where whales should be fully protected, it is the Southern Ocean," said Wendy Elliott, species manager at WWF-International. "What we need is to eliminate all whaling in the Southern Ocean, including Japanese commercial whaling thinly disguised as 'scientific research.'"

"But what we have now is a deal which could make it even easier for Japan to continue taking whales in this ecologically unique place," Elliott said.

The IWC supposedly provides special protection to a critical whale feeding area, the Southern Ocean, surrounding the continent of Antarctica, which the IWC established as a 50 million square kilometer whale sanctuary in 1994. "This extra layer of protection signifies the importance of this area as the primary feeding habitat of many of the Southern Hemisphere's whale populations," Elliott said.

The proposal sets a process in motion that could endorse quotas which have not yet had a full and proper scientific review. "It is difficult to see how determining quotas through politics rather than science can be considered progress," said Elliott.

The draft Consensus Decision will be discussed by a group of IWC countries at a meeting in March, with the intention that it will be adopted by the IWC at its next full meeting in Agadir, Morocco in June.

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