South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary Vote Expected in Panama

This year, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) will host its annual meeting in Panama, and among the top items it will discuss is the possibility of building a whale sanctuary in the south Atlantic Ocean. Later this month, representatives from Greenpeace will travel to Panama to attend the meeting, and will advocate for the whale sanctuary through creative methods.

The environmental organization plans to hold a photo exhibit and a whale-themed party in the streets of Panama City to raise awareness and garner support for the cause. An email sent by Greenpeace, which is trying to raise money from supporters to fund its actions in Panama, called the proposed whale sanctuary “one of the best opportunities we’ve ever had to protect whale populations in the South Atlantic.”

In 1938, the first whale sanctuary was established in Antarctica, but dissolved in 1955 under pressure to reinstate commercial whaling in the area. There are currently two whale sanctuaries in the world: the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which surrounds Antarctica, and the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Both ban all commercial whaling, and the proposed South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary would likely follow a similar model. The proposed sanctuary would, together with the two existing sanctuaries, prohibit commercial whaling in most of the Southern Hemisphere. Whales that live in the South Atlantic include 54 species, among them endangered southern right whales.

Whale sanctuaries allow endangered or dwindling populations of whales to recover and breed, raise awareness of the need to protect all ocean animals, and encourage marine research that does not harm the animals. Sanctuaries offer economic incentives to bordering countries, such as the chance to develop or improve their whale tourism industry. The future South Atlantic Ocean sanctuary will cover all of the Atlantic waters south of the equator and was proposed in 2001 by South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina. Australia and New Zealand have proposed a South Pacific sanctuary, but from 2000 to 2004, the plan failed to gather enough votes to pass from the IWC.

The International Whaling Commission was formed under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which was established in 1946.  The Commission is composed of 89 member states, including large portions of the Americas, Europe, and Asia. It has enforced a ban on commercial whaling since 1986, providing exemptions for native and aboriginal populations in countries such as Canada and the United States (Alaska). Because the organization is voluntary and not a binding treaty, countries are not required to follow the ban on whaling; Norway and Iceland still participate in commercial whaling, while Japan hunts the animals for scientific research purposes. Some environmentalists disagree with the allowance of scientific whaling, arguing that many of these whales are not intended for research.

In the past, populations in several countries depended on whaling for subsistence in rural environments. Now, however, many areas rely on whale-related tourism—such as whale watching tours—as a major draw to coastal towns. Japan has historically been a vocal proponent of whaling, as well as an opponent to whaling bans and sanctuaries. Although whaling is a threat to the marine mammals, pollution, oil drilling, overfishing, and climate change also put them at risk of harm.

A vote on the sanctuary was proposed at last year’s meeting on the British Channel Island of Jersey, but after delegates from Japan and other pro-whaling nations refused to vote and left the room, the action was tabled; a decision is expected at this year’s meeting. The United States and the majority of the European Union support the sanctuary. Greenpeace hopes that its actions at the Panama meeting will convince delegates to support and vote for the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary.

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