2008: An uncertain year for whales

A Japanese whaling ship

A Japanese whaling ship

The mood was tense before the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 60th annual meeting. The IWC secretariat hoped this year would herald a shift from deadlocked discussions on hunting quotas towards a show of consensus and an IWC more focused on whale protection in the future.

Our aims were compatible: WSPA sought to focus the IWC Commissioners’ attention away from quotas and onto the animals, their welfare and their lives by taking copies of our underwater film and a life-size whale photo exhibition to the meeting in Chile.

Our approach was reported to have been successful in what became a meeting of mixed fortunes for whale welfare.

Time for change: setting out a new vision

WSPA teamed up with 30 other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to offer Commissioners an alternative vision for the IWC: as a marine mammal protection organisation.

Change is both timely (the IWC knows it must adapt to be effective) and desperately needed. The grim backdrop to all talks was the fact that more whales are being hunted and killed now than at any time since the ban on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986.

We demonstrated huge public support for a new, protective IWC agenda, presenting Commissioners with over 34,000 signatures from 66 countries collected as part of WSPA’s ‘Time to Refocus’ campaign. We were pleased to hear the sentiments of our accompanying report (PDF file) voiced by many Commissioners.

The good news for whale welfare

An Icelandic whale watching ship

An Icelandic whale watching ship


A disappointing ‘business as usual’ approach from whaling nations, ignoring the tangible steps towards common ground made by anti-whaling nations, left IWC plans for unity frustrated.

However, there were some significant victories for whale welfare during the meeting:

  • Commissioners vote against humpback hunt

    WSPA’s undercover film and report exposed the commercial sale of meat from Greenland’s ‘aboriginal subsistence’ whaling quota. This forced the only vote of the year, providing Commissioners with enough information to oppose Greenland’s request to hunt ten humpback whales for ‘subsistence’ purposes.

    The EU voted as a block for the first time, the Netherlands returning to an anti-whaling stance following pressure from WSPA Netherlands and other organisations. The Latin American block also voted against the proposal, demonstrating their solidarity in opposing all but essential subsistence whaling.

  • Interest grows in humane and sustainable use of marine mammals

    A WSPA-sponsored whale watching report was the subject of a press conference, revealing that in Costa Rica this whale friendly industry has increased by 76% since 1994, with revenues of over US$ 5 million in 2007. Mr. Roberto Dobles, the country’s Minister of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications, stated that Costa Rica’s government aims to become a regional leader in whale conservation. 

    A WSPA poll conducted in New Zealand – one of the world’s most popular whale watching destinations – revealed that 94% of people are now against whaling, many on welfare grounds. This news was well received by the New Zealand government, who used the statistics in several statements and interviews.

  • Animal welfare moves up the agenda

    Once again welfare discussions were limited by the whaling nations failing to provide data on their hunts. They claimed that the publication of previous data by NGOs – showing the extreme and lengthy suffering of hunted whales – constituted a ‘misuse’ of the information. But despite this, many countries took the floor to call for animal welfare to be discussed within the IWC – Costa Rica, Argentina and the UK all describing it as a top priority. 

    The UK and Costa Rica also welcomed a WSPA/Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society report (PDF file) on the whaling industry’s failure to meet international commitments to animal welfare. We hope this will provide a basis for the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and IWC to talk seriously about whale welfare at the IWC’s 61st meeting in 2009.

  • Greater NGO involvement

    WSPA was among a group of NGOs who pledged to work in partnership with the anti-whaling Latin American nations to end ‘scientific’ whaling. Meanwhile, WSPA’s Marine Mammals Programme Manager, Claire Bass, was invited to join the UK delegation to provide advice and support on animal welfare.

    WSPA was especially pleased to be joined in Chile by member society Dyrebeskyttelsen Norge, who campaign against whaling within Norway. Their attendance showed the Norwegian delegation that the country’s whaling activity is under both the international and domestic spotlight.

Moving forward from mixed outcomes

WSPA celebrated the successes, hard won by our supporters, campaigners and staff, yet sadly the fact remains that hunts continue, with the welfare of these charismatic mammals hugely compromised.

We will be at the next IWC annual meeting in Portugal to ensure that the ban on commercial whaling is upheld and strengthened. It remains to be seen whether a year of reflection and informal talks between Commissioners results in a less polarised and quota-led IWC in 2009.

Watch this space.