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From managing commercial slaughter to saving the whale – the International Whaling Commission at 75

Governments come together under the auspices of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to make decisions that affect whales (and more recently dolphins and porpoises too) ... and what happens to whales impacts the ocean and all of us.

So as the IWC celebrates its 75th anniversary, let’s explore how this international body began by attempting to conserve whales so that there were more to hunt, how it implemented one of the most iconic conservation successes of all time – the ban on commercial whaling – and how it needs to evolve into a genuine force for conservation on the frontline of the fight against the climate crisis.


Your donation will help us fight whaling and save the whale, save the world

Trapped in the past

You may think that something as old as the IWC is past its sell by date, or you might hope it has gained some wisdom during the 75 years in which it has tried to manage global whaling and find solutions to the increased human impacts on whales and dolphins.

Back in 1946, the 15 founding signatories of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, emerging from the trauma of the Second World War, would most probably have been disheartened if they’d known that 75 years later members of the Commission they established (the IWC) still wouldn’t be able to evolve their thinking and agree on the IWC’s core purpose and jurisdiction for the 21st century. Indeed, those governments who still subsidise their commercial whaling fleets to maintain the anachronism of whale hunting in the 21st century, are trapped in 1946; rejecting the advances which have led the rest of the world to realise we need to protect whales and dolphins and help restore the populations that survived the butchery of the 20th century.

We need whales

As we saw at COP26 (the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow), the next 50 years will be critical for the future of this planet and the whales we share it with. The IWC must seize the opportunity to reject the failures of the past and build a future that goes beyond ‘managing whales’ with a vision that seeks to put the IWC at the centre of global efforts to protect whales, dolphins and porpoises as complex, social and sentient individuals; worthy of protection in their own right, as well as for being the great ‘oceanic stewards’, moving nutrients around, ‘tending’ phytoplankton forests, and allowing the ocean to capture carbon whilst maintaining a healthy marine environment. With the ocean absorbing some 93% of our excess atmospheric heat, these ocean giants are the critical oceanic engineers we all need to see thrive in the years to come if we are to meet the challenges of the ever-evident climate crisis.

Cheap food

Almost three million great whales were killed in commercial whaling operations in the 20th century. Attempts in the 1930s to protect the interests of the whaling industry fell away with the resumption of global hostilities in 1939 and it was from these ashes that the IWC was born in 1946 when the USA wished to use whale meat to feed a devastated Japan, and other nations were looking for a relatively cheap food source for their war-ravaged people.

For Japan this was the continuation of a policy that was used to feed its troops and underpinned its invasion of China in the early 1930s. The  post-war formation of the Liberal Democratic party in Japan created a nationalist leadership who have maintained close links to their whaling interest ever since.

Commercial whaling banned

After decades of failing to keep the waiting interests in check at the IWC, it was the organisation’s engagement of NGOs and the admission of conservation-minded countries that finally led to the visionary decision in 1982 to prohibit commercial whaling worldwide; a ruling that prevented the extinction of several populations and species of whales. Whilst several of the richest whaling countries ignored the ban and used every loophole they could identify to continue their whaling, the rest of the world started to evolve the IWC into a forum where conservation could really start to be undertaken. As a result, some 40 years later, a few wild populations of great whales have recovered but many are still nowhere near their pre-exploitation levels.

Sperm whales
A group of sperm whales © V Mignon

Real conservation

The IWC’s primary purpose has evolved over its 75-year history – from conserving whales in order to maximise hunting quotas, to developing a comprehensive programme of work addressing a wide range of human threats. This includes addressing the impact of climate change, noise and chemical pollution, entanglement and death in fishing gear (bycatch), marine litter, and vessel strikes. Despite the efforts of some countries intent on stopping such conservation efforts, the IWC has seen progress in the establishment of its committee for dolphins, porpoises and small whales and in the focussing of its scientific committee on examining environment threats. It has devised and implemented conservation management plans for many endangered species and pioneered some remarkable work on ship strikes, bycatch mitigation and even large whale entanglements with teams being trained around the globe to save individual whales.

Save the whale, save ourselves

In order to fulfil its potential as a conservation body, the IWC has to once and for all reject all forms of commercial whaling and focus on protection to allow populations to recover and fulfil their role as our allies in the fight against the climate crisis.

The IWC can, and should break with the failures of the past; recognising that commercial whaling serves no purpose apart from the enrichment of a few, and in doing so, seize the opportunity of a new future where it can be at the specialist centre of local and global efforts to achieve whale, dolphin and ocean recovery and fight climate breakdown – because we need to save the whale to save the world.

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