The worldwide outcry against the slaughter of whales in the 1980s led to the member countries of the International Whaling Commission voting for a global moratorium banning the whaling of 10 species of 'great whale' for commercial purposes. After decades of hunting, whale populations had been reduced to a mere fraction of their former levels and many species were perilously close to extinction.
The moratorium has remained in place since 1986 and is allowing whales some respite to slowly begin to recover their populations, although they still battle many other threats such as shipping collisions, seismic disturbance, marine debris, pollution and the environmental changes brought by global warming.
For some species of great whale the moratorium may have come too late, numbers of Blue Whale, Northern Right Whale and Gray Whale still teeter close to extinction.
Sadly, not all IWC countries respect the whaling moratorium; Japan, Iceland and Norway have continued hunting whales. These countries are determined to bring an end to the moratorium and at each annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission the moratorium comes under sustained pressure.
Norway took out a reservation against the moratorium when it was first agreed, and under IWC rules this means its whaling industry has unfortunately been allowed to continue killing minke whales in the north east Atlantic.
Under the rules of the IWC, which were set up in the 1940s, countries are allowed to issue permits to kill whales for scientific purposes. It is this loophole that Japan exploits to continue its commercial whaling interests even though their abuse of this clause was declared unlawful by the International Court of Justice.
Iceland left the IWC not long after the moratorium was agreed and then controversially re-joined it in 2004 with a reservation against the moratorium. While countries can take out reservations to decisions when they are first agreed, it is highly un-orthodox for a country to join a treaty with a reservation to one of its key decisions.
Many countries including Australia do not accept the legitimacy of Iceland’s membership to the IWC with this reservation.
HSI always has a team of campaigners at the annual IWC meetings, lobbying to ensure the moratorium remains firmly in place, commercial and scientific whaling are strongly opposed and proper conservation measures are taken to protect whale and dolphin populations from threats such as pollution, fisheries bycatch, entanglements, ship strike and climate change. We will often have a representative on the Australian government delegation to provide advice on these issues.
Image: HSI/AMCS/N McLachlan