What happened at the International Whaling Commission meetings, and what does this mean for whales?



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    As explained in this article, this month member countries of the International Whaling Commission met in Morocco for their annual meeting to discuss the future of whale populations.  The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the body that regulates the conservation of global whale populations, and that more than two decades ago instituted a formal ban on commercial whaling worldwide.  Some countries, notably Japan, Norway, and Iceland, have refused to respect the anti-whaling rule – either by ignoring it altogether, or by finding loopholes in the treaty.  Yet because the IWC holds a great deal of power over the fate of whales, their annual meetings are always a big deal for those with an interest in preserving these creatures.  This year the stakes were especially high, because pro-whaling countries brought forward a proposal that if passed would allow them to hunt whales legally.  What follows is the story of what happened, and what it means for the whales. 
    Effort to legalize whaling fails 
    Pro-whaling countries like Japan, Norway, and Iceland proposed a rule that would legalize some commercial whaling by these three countries.  This itself isn’t all that surprising; these nations, and Japan in particular, regularly try to change the whaling moratorium at IWC meetings.  Lobbyists from Japan have even been uncovered trying to bribe the governments of poor countries to support a repeal of the whaling moratorium, by offering increase foreign aid in exchange for a pro-whaling vote at the meetings.  Yet what was different this year was that it seemed the efforts of Japan, Norway, and Iceland might actually pay off.  Their pro-whaling proposal reportedly gained the support of the Obama administration early on, leading many to fear the United States would side against the whaling ban.  As explained in this GreenAnswers article, the Obama administration seems to have been swayed by arguments that legalizing limited whaling would allow the IWC to better regulate the hunting of whales that Japan, Norway, and Iceland already do.  In contrast, environmental groups argued the proposal would simply legitimize the killing of whales, while opening the doors to other countries eventually asking to be allowed to hunt whales, too.  Fortunately the pro-whaling proposal failed in the end, partly because of massive world-wide support for whale conservation.
    Grassroots organizing saves the whales
    Once reports came out that the Obama administration might support a weakening of the whaling ban, environmental groups launched into action.  Greenpeace held a rally for the whales at the National Mall on Earth Day, and mounted a publicity campaign asking President Obama to preserve the whaling moratorium.  The social action group Avaaz collected 1.2 million signatures from people around the world, on a petition asking countries to continue protecting whale populations.  This petition was widely circulated over the Internet and displayed a live count of the new petition signatures as people all over the planet added their names.  The petition was publicly presented to officials at the IWC meetings in Morocco, and generated some high-profile news coverage of the effort to keep the whaling ban in place.  Grassroots efforts like these apparently made many countries think twice about the pro-whaling proposal – the United States included.  In the end the Obama administration re-affirmed its support for the whaling moratorium, and opposed the move to re-legalize commercial whaling.  With the support of the US and other key countries, the moratorium survived this month’s IWC negotiations.
    What’s next for global whale conservation
    Frustratingly, the near-success of this year’s pro-whaling proposal meant environmental groups had to spend most of their efforts on the defensive.  In other words though Japan, Norway, and Iceland failed to overturn the whaling moratorium, focusing on that big fight meant there wasn’t much time to push for improvements in the existing moratorium, such as measures making it more difficult for these three countries to get away with hunting whales.  Despite the official IWC ban on commercial whaling about 1,600 whales are killed each year – mainly by Japan, Norway, and Iceland.  This is because Norway and Iceland have chosen to ignore the whaling moratorium, while Japan exploits a loophole in the law by selling its commercial-scale whale hunting as “scientific” whaling.  No major progress was made at this year’s IWC meetings toward bringing whaling by these countries under better control.  Yet moving forward, there is some truly good news for the whales.  The outpouring of grassroots support for whale conservation that preserved the IWC moratorium has also reminded many world officials how much public support there is for whale conservation.  Reassured that people all over the globe are concerned about the fate of the whales, the IWC may be more willing to support new steps that protect these animals next year.
    Summing it all up
    To summarize, this year’s IWC meetings in Morocco witnessed one of the biggest show-downs over whale conservation since the early days of Greenpeace’s “save the whales” campaign.  It’s disturbing that a pro-whaling proposal gained as much traction that it did, and that the United States almost came down in support of it.  Yet it’s also inspiring to see how a global grassroots movement preserved the whaling moratorium, and how people all over the world responded when asked to stand up for whales.  Moving forward Greenpeace, Avaaz, and other groups involved in this fight will doubtless be working to harness the momentum of this movement, and push for stronger protections for whale populations everywhere.  This year, commercial whaling was blocked from becoming legalized.  The challenge in years to come will be strengthen protections for whales, and ensure these amazing creatures persist into the future on a planet more and more influenced by human activity.
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    It seems that there was a lot of discussion about the future of the IWC itself.  A complete, day-by-day guide of the meeting can be found here.

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