Aron sees end of IWC ahead...
- The International Whaling Commission : A Case of Malignant Neglect
By William Aron
William Aron, Director, Alaska Fisheries Science Center (Ret.), Affiliate
Professor, University of Washington, presented this paper at a conference
held in Corvalis, Oregon hosted by the International Institute of Fisheries
Economics and Trade, July 10-14, 2000.
The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was signed in
Washington, D.C. on December 2, 1946. The initial 14 signatories were all
whaling nations. Thirteen of the original members remain, but except for
aboriginal harvests, none whale. With the addition of Guinea recently,
current membership in the Convention is 41 nations. Almost none of these are
whaling, in fact most are opposed to whaling with varied degrees of vigor.
The Convention preamble has all of the words that would please a modern
conservationist- and let us be clear at the outset, I use the term
conservation to mean the rational use of living resources. The Convention
The need to safeguard whale stocks for future generations
That the history of whaling has been marked by overfishing
That proper regulation will permit whale stocks to increase and permit
fishing without their endangerment
That it is in the common interests to achieve optimum population levels of
whale stocks without causing widespread economic and nutritional distress
That to achieve the above objectives whaling should be restricted to those
species best able to sustain exploitation, to allow the recovery of depleted
To accomplish the above objectives the signatories decided to conclude a
convention for the proper conservation of whale stocks to make possible the
orderly development of the whaling industry.
This paper examines how the International Whaling Commission(IWC), which was
established by the Convention has operated during its fifty year history. It
will look first at some of the Convention provisions that are critical to
our understanding and then turn to the evolution of science and the
interaction of the IWC with its Scientific Committee
Key Convention Provisions
Integral to the Convention is the Schedule, which serves as the regulatory
and operational guide, fixing protected and unprotected species,, seasons,
open and closed waters, including sanctuaries, size limits, methods and
intensity of fishing, including quotas, gear specifications, methods of
measurement and statistical and biological records.
The prime business of the annual meetings of IWC has been to amend the
Schedule for the following whaling season. It is important to note that
Schedule changes require a three-fourths majority vote. The Convention
itself cannot be amended.
Even if an amendment to the Schedule is passed by the three-fourths
majority, a member may file an objection within 90 days, and exempt itself
The Convention allows any Contracting Government to permit its nationals to
take whales for scientific purposes, the number of whales to be taken is
determined by the Contracting Government. The Contracting Government also
determines how whales taken under a scientific permit are processed and the
distribution of the resulting proceeds. The Contracting Government is
charged, in so far is practicable, with transmitting the scientific data to
the IWC. The Contracting Governments are also charged with taking all
practicable measure to provide scientific information from commercial
In the event a three-fourths majority is not reached regarding a Schedule
change, the previous year's quota remains in effect.
Of critical importance during the first part of IWC's existence (until 1972)
was the use in the Schedule of the Blue Whale Unit (BWU) as the prime
management tool. Whale quotas were not set by species or by stock units, but
by the oil equivalency of a blue whale. One BWU was equal to 6 sei (or
Bryde's - the Bryde's was not treated as a separate species until the 70s),
2 fin or 2.5 humpbacks. This allowed the IWC to control the availability of
whale oil- which many believe was the prime reason for IWC's existence ( a
clear hint of the future OPEC), as well as allowing whalers to conveniently
shift target species if shortages of a particular species occurred in their
The IWC does not establish national quotas, these must be negotiated
separately by the nations that engaged in commercial whaling.
Each member nation has the same voting power, a vote from Oman or Monaco
counts as much as a vote from the United States or Japan.
IWC Through the Eyes of a Scientist
Just how has the IWC succeeded in its stated purpose of proper conservation
of whales and the orderly development of the whaling industry? Simply
stated- it hasn't. While my perspective is largely that of a biological
scientist, the evolutionary see-saw that transformed IWC from a whaler's
club that paid little heed to conserving whale populations to a
protectionist organization that largely ignores people dependent on whaling
while forcefully saving the whale, should be self evident to all. Just how
did this all happen?
The IWC Scientific Committee is a servant to the Commission. During the
first twenty years of the SC, there was a strong sense that the SC would
only be listened to if their quota recommendations met the industries needs.
During my first SC meeting in 1972 I was directly confronted by a more
experienced member of the Committee who chastised me for urging a low quota
on a whale stock. He had no problem with my estimates, but he was critical
for my lack of realism- I was told that if the SC went forward with my views
the Commission would ignore us and then select of quota of their choice. The
strategy in the SC was to seek the lowest possible quota that the industry
could live with, despite the fact that by the early seventies it was
blatantly clear to everyone that most of the great whales were in trouble.
The situation was even worse during the first decade of the Commission.
About a dozen scientists participated in the early SC meetings, mean
attendance was about seven. The members, including Dr. Remington Kellogg,
the Director of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, were
naturalists, systematicists and physiologists- none were from the rapidly
evolving fields of population dynamics or enumeration. Even they, as very
good observers, could tell the fin whale was in trouble. The fin whale catch
had risen from about 17000 animals during the 50-51 season to nearly 26000
in 54-55. The SC, in their meeting report details how they wished to reduce
the catch to no more than 19000 in 55-56, but recommended that no more than
25000 should be taken because a cut "of this magnitude would scarcely be
acceptable". The U.S. joined other members in supporting the high quotas,
perhaps because the whalers had sufficient votes to block a low quota- thus
the previous years even higher quota would remain in effect.
During this early period the SC regularly expressed their concern for whale
stocks. The BWU quota was not being reached, and more importantly the
whalers were forced to shift their takes to less valuable species to try to
reach their catch limits.
Facing a clear crisis, the IWC assembled a group of outside experts to
provide a new perspective. Three outstanding population scientists, K.Radway
Allen, Douglas Chapman and Sidney Holt- the Committee of Three-later
supplemented by John Gulland to become the Committee of Four, were called
together to provide analysis and advice. The Committee began its work in
1961, issued an interim report in about a year and their final report on
time for the 1963 meeting of the Commission. The Report strongly recommended
elimination of the use of the BWU and very severe cuts in a number of
quotas. The report was only partially accepted. Use of the BWU continued for
10 more years, more than 14,000 fin whales were taken, instead of the less
than 7000 recommended, but the take of blue and humpback whales was stopped
(they were truly scarce).
A sense of what happened during these early years is shown in the
viewgraphs- which if you could read them will demonstrate the shift of take
from one whale species to another as they were each harvested to commercial
The willingness of the whaling industry to over harvest appears to be less a
case of foolish optimism, a disease which is widespread among fishermen of
nearly all nations, and more likely a function of the economic truths
detailed by Colin W. Clark. In 1981 Clark's paper, "Economic aspects of
renewable resource exploitation as applied to marine mammals(FAO Fish Ser.,
5, Vol.3) indicated that the slow growth of marine mammals was in direct
conflict with profits. Operational and capital costs were sufficiently high
to make harvest rates that were biologically safe economically unsound.
This was a period when hardly anyone outside of the whalers cared or thought
about whales. A few humane groups protested the cruelty of whale killing,
but the conservation community was largely silent and the environmental
community as we know it today did not really exist.
The 1970s saw a rebirth of environmental concern. There was created, in a
very short period, air, water quality, endangered species and marine mammal
protection laws .New organizations were created, including the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency,
the Council on Environmental Quality and the Marine Mammal Commission to
implement the new legislation.
The tragedy of the whale issue was seized upon as a unifying force by U.S.
groups ranging from the traditional wildlife conservation organizations to
the more extreme protectionists, as a symbol of what was wrong about man's
use of natural resources.
At the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in
1972, the U.S. pressed for a 10-year moratorium on commercial whaling . The
U.S. proposal was passed by a 53-0 vote with 3 abstentions. The moratorium
was designed to provide a pause in commercial whaling to both allow the
development of a conservative whaling regime and to allow some time for the
recovery of depleted stocks to assure their availability to man. A few
months later, despite the fact that most IWC nations had supported the
moratorium in Stockholm, it failed to win the three fourths majority
required. at the annual IWC meeting in London.
The IWC-SC, which by this time had expanded its membership substantially to
include a solid array of quantitative scientists, could not support a
blanket moratorium in view of the health of a number of whales stocks,
especially the minke whale which was virtually unharvested. It was clear,
however, that the status quo was not viable and that public protests which
expanded well beyond the U.S. were having an impact on whaling nations,
mainly through threatened and real boycotts, especially of Japanese
A compromise was reached when in 1974 a proposal called the New Management
Procedure, was introduced by Australia. This was a biologically conservative
approach that limited whaling to those stocks that were above population
levels that produced 90% of the MSY, with the harvest to be limited so the
long term safety and sustainablity was assured. The NMP went into effect
during the 1975-76 whaling season, and for a short period the SC was allowed
to play a key role in the IWC decision making process
The see-saw was now level - but not resting.
The whale had become a true poster child- a wonderful animal perceived by
the general public as uniquely intelligent, care giving, remarkably
communicative, but most of all, cruelly threatened by merciless whalers with
imminent extinction. Sadly, these beliefs were wildly exaggerated.
The protection community, now with a solid understanding of the IWC
operation, effectively used the public perception of whales to generate a
strategy to stop whaling. With the help of the U.S. Government and others
pressures were brought on new nations- with no interest in whaling- to join
IWC as anti whalers. By 1981 the IWC swelled to 33 members and easily
achieved a three fourths majority in support of a moratorium on commercial
whaling in 1982( which went into effect during the 1985-86 season). The
argument used to support the ban was based on genuine defects of the NMP-
mainly in the difficulty in getting data essential for implementation. It
should be noted, however, in my own discussions with SC members at the time,
the view was expressed that the NMP could still be used without creating a
threat to any of the whale stocks.
The ban was instituted to allow the SC to generate a new approach that would
be conservative and which would be capable of implementation. The SC
finished its work on the Revised Management Plan (RMP)in 1993 and
unanimously passed it on to the Commission. Acceptance of this plan would be
a first step in the resumption of commercial whaling, a step not willingly
taken by many Commissioners. The Commission failed to act prompting the
Chair of the SC to resign because he could no longer justify himself, "being
the organizer of and the spokesman for a Committee which is held in such
disregard by the body to which it is responsible"
The RMP would form the basis for an implementation plan- the Revised
Management Scheme (RMS) which has not been implemented.. This failure to
move ahead has been severely criticized from within and from without, by
outgoing IWC Secretary, Ray Gambell, by the well respected International
Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). and most recently by the
leadership of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species
(CITES). Perhaps, because of these pressure, it appears that some progress
may have been achieved at the just concluded meetings in Adelaide,
Organizations have been formed, for example, The World Council of Whalers,
that could replace the dysfunctional IWC, unless the situation changes
.Change may prove impossible in the face of the strong anti-whaling public
positions taken by many IWC members, especially Australia. Being an
anti-whaler, especially for most U.S. politicians, allows donning the green
coat without negative constituent impacts. The people who may be hurt are
out of sight and their pain seems to carry little weight. Having established
environmental credentials by pleading the case for whales you can avoid
getting into serious environmental issues, like population control and
global warming, that may challenge the jobs and lifestyles of your
In the meantime whaling operations continue throughout the world, by
aboriginal people in the Atlantic, the Carribean, many places in the
Pacific, including a tribal hunt just to our north, as well as the bowhead
hunt described by fellow panelists.. Legal commercial hunting also goes on,
mainly in Norway with hunts underway in Japan for scientific purposes. Many
of these takes are addressed under the IWC banner, but many are by
non-member nations. Most whale stocks have large migrations and are true
trans boundary species, their effective management is an international
concern. The current vacuum is untenable.