The International Whaling Commission

Last edited 22 May 2007 at 4:53pm


What is the IWC?

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up in 1946 as a club for whaling nations. Its brief was to provide for an "orderly development of the whaling industry," because even in those days it was becoming clear that whales were being massively over-fished.

In fact, the IWC was signally unsuccessful in this aim, and whale hunting remained more like an unregulated gold rush for the next 25 years, as one species after another was targeted almost to extinction. But as whale populations diminished, whaling became uneconomical, and one after another, the whaling nations hung up their harpoons.

The IWC logo
The IWC logo

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, as environmental awareness increased, these former whaling countries began to push for whale conservation, and the IWC itself became the focus for this change. In 1979, the IWC banned the hunting of all whale species (except minke whales) by factory ships, and declared the entire Indian Ocean as a whale sanctuary. The 1982 meeting saw the adoption of an indefinite global moratorium (suspension) on commercial whaling. And in 1994, the Commission declared the entire Southern Ocean to be a sanctuary for whales. Japan agreed to the sanctuary for all whales but minke whales.

But whaling has not ended. Since the moratorium was put in place, nearly 30,000 whales have been hunted, predominantly by Japan, Norway and Iceland, who've all exploited legal loopholes to undermine the spirit of the moratorium.

Why does whaling still go on?

Under IWC regulations, if a member country lodges an objection to an IWC decision within 90 days, it can exempt itself from that decision. This is what Japan, Iceland and Norway have done.

  • Norway lodged an official objection to the moratorium in 1982, and therefore is not bound by it. It continues to hunt minke whales in the North Atlantic.
  • Iceland left the IWC in 1992 but rejoined in 2003 with a reservation to the moratorium. It began commercial whaling in 2006. There remains a legal dispute as to whether this reservation applies and 18 IWC member governments have lodged objections to Iceland's position.
  • Japan conducts commercial whaling in the Antarctic and North Pacific using a loophole in the IWC convention that allows countries to kill whales for "scientific research." It began this "scientific" whaling in the Antarctic in 1987, and in the North Pacific in 1996. The IWC has repeatedly requested that Japan end this "research" but under IWC rules, Japan is free to ignore the IWC and set its own quotas. The meat from this "research" whaling is packaged and sold on Japanese commercial markets.

Eyeballing Japanes delegates at a previous IWC meeting

Eyeballing Japanese delegates at a previous IWC meeting

What is Greenpeace's position?

For many years Greenpeace has had 'observer' status at the IWC, allowing us to attend its meetings and lobby for more conservation measures. Over the past few years the Japanese government has spent a large amount of time and political energy ensuring more and more countries vote with them to overturn the moratorium, and to expel Greenpeace from the Commission. Last year they came within one or two votes of succeeding. The so-called "conservation-minded" countries have allowed this to happen - they've been asleep on the job while Japan leads the international community closer and closer to the resumption of commercial whaling.

Our position is that the IWC is out of touch with reality; great whales remain in a perilous state and their numbers will decline further unless properly protected. So the IWC must be modernised in such a way that it becomes a body working for the whales and not the whalers.

So at this year's IWC in Alaska we'll be calling for more resources to be put into helping endangered whales recover, strengthening the conservation committee and eliminating the loopholes that allow fake "scientific" hunting to continue in the Southern Ocean. Whaling in the Southern Ocean breaches the spirit and objectives of the Antarctic Treaty (to which Japan and Norway have both signed up), which says amongst other things that "Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord."

Find out more...

The IWC in its own words

The IWC - Wikipedia entry

The Antarctic Treaty explained

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