Whaling Nations Erode Moratorium, Toxics of Universal Concern

PANAMA CITY, Panama, July 6, 2012 (ENS) – Hundreds of delegates from the 89 International Whaling Commission member governments today agreed to a resolution asking the UN World Health Organization to review the scientific evidence on contaminants such as mercury in whale and dolphin food products and give updated advice for consumers.

Scientists have linked mercury in cetacean meat with medical conditions among consumers, including Parkinson’s disease, arteriosclerosis, immune system suppression and hypertension. Threats to children include autism, Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Whale meat at a restaurant in Busan, South Korea (Photo by Nudeviking)

The resolution requests the IWC’s own Scientific Committee to continue its evaluation of scientific data on contaminants in whale and dolphin meat and urges governments to be vigilant and inform consumers about health effects.

Laboratory analyses of cetacean food products sold in Japan, conducted for the London-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, EIA, have repeatedly revealed mercury levels exceeding the Japanese national limit for mercury in seafood of 0.4 parts per million (ppm). One whale product purchased in 2011 contained a mercury level of 21 ppm, 50 times the safe limit.

“We very much hope this will encourage the Japanese government to take action to prevent the commercial sale of highly contaminated dolphin and whale products and proactively protect their public regarding potential health risks,” said Clare Perry speaking for the EIA.

Much dissension marked the 64th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, which concluded in Panama City today. In the closing hours, delegates agreed that future IWC meetings will be held only once every two years rather than every year.

Despite agreement on the resolution to cooperate with the UN’s health agency, IWC member nations turned down a proposal by Monaco to take protection of whales and dolphins on the high seas to the UN General Assembly. Monaco’s delegation said they will work to advance the idea within the UN with a “task force” of nations that support protection for cetaceans outside of national waters.

On the first day of the meeting, July 3, delegates rejected a proposal for a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary offered by Brazil, Argentina and South Africa.

The IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, in place since 1986, came under renewed assault at the meeting as South Korea announced it would go whaling under the “scientific permits” provision of the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she would fight the proposal. Political leaders on both sides of New Zealand’s legislature condemned Seoul’s plan. Foreign Minister Murray McCully called the announcement “a serious setback for those who are committed to conservation of the species.”

Humpback whale breeches near Juneau, Alaska (Photo by nvmoparman)

U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters at a news briefing in Washington, “We remain committed to the moratorium on commercial whaling. We’re concerned about South Korea’s announcement that it will begin a lethal scientific research whaling program, and we plan to discuss this with the South Korean Government.”

Special permit catches have long been a controversial issue among the IWC member nations. Currently, only Japan carries out special permit “research” whaling, setting its own quotas to take more than 1,000 whales each year in the western North Pacific and in the Antarctic, even in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Under that provision, Japan has killed more than 9,000 whales in the 21st century.

Head of the South Korean delegation Dr. Joon-Suk Kang told the delegates that his government has “strictly” obeyed the moratorium but that Korean fishermen “are consistently calling for limited whaling.”

“This is because they are experiencing disturbances in their fishing activities due to frequent occurrences of cetaceans in their fishing grounds and an increasing number of minke whales are eating away large amount of fish stocks which should be consumed by human being,” Dr. Kang said. “We therefore hope that this Commission will set in motion the review procedure as a matter of urgency to reinstate traditional coastal whaling for the future of the IWC.”

A bid by Denmark on behalf of its territory, Greenland, to increase the aboriginal whaling quota for Greenland Innuit, was not approved despite the U.S. decision to join the whaling bloc in supporting it. Then, in a procedural failure, Denmark failed to get any quota approved at all.

The IWC rejected Denmark’s bid following revelations by the nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, WDCS, of the widespread commercial sale of whale meat in Greenland to tourists.

Bowhead whale breeches off the coast of Greenland (Photo by Ross Bishop)

Greenland was seeking to increase the number of endangered fin and humpback whales its native people can kill over the next six years, in addition to maintaining existing take levels for minke and bowhead whales.

But an undercover operation conducted by WDCS exposed how Greenland has been undermining the IWC’s ban on commercial whaling by openly selling whale meat in the majority of its restaurants and also in supermarkets.

This is the first time in many years that nongovernmental organizations have been permitted to express their opinions and raise concerns in an IWC meeting.

Criticism of Greenland was led by the Latin bloc of whale conservationist countries who pointed out there is little difference between Greenland’s feeding whales to tourists and the activities of commercial whaling operations.

The European Union offered to amend Denmark’s proposal, but Denmark refused, demanding that its original proposal be voted on. The vote was 25 in favor, and 34 opposed, including most EU countries, while three nations abstained.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says illegal whaling is already taking place in South Korea, further undermining the IWC moratorium.

Chris Butler-Stroud, WDCS chief executive, said, “We sincerely hope that South Korea reconsiders its threats to resume so-called ‘scientific whaling,’ and actually concentrates on eliminating its legalized sales of net-caught whales that is acting as a cover for its domestic illegal whaling.”

Kitty Block, who headed the Humane Society International’s delegation, also sees South Korea’s new whaling plan as a threat to the moratorium. “Like Japan’s small type coastal whaling proposal, Korea’s declaration of intent to commence scientific whaling can only be seen as part of the ongoing effort by whaling nations to upend the commercial whaling moratorium,” she said.

Aboriginal quotas for the United States, Russia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines were approved.

The U.S. delegation to the IWC received from Greenpeace a letter with some 53,000 signatures thanking President Barack Obama and his administration for supporting whale conservation and asking the President to continue supporting the moratorium on commercial whaling.

“We are very proud of the effort of the United States in whale conservation,” said Ryan Wulff, U.S. alternate commissioner for the IWC. “We want to lead the effort to advance our conservation agenda, and to share with other countries some of the techniques and strategies we are using in the U.S. to conserve whales.”

Wulff said the U.S. provided leadership at this meeting for discussions about strengthening the international moratorium on commercial whaling, ship strike avoidance, disentanglement of whales from fishing gear, and responsible whale watching.

U.S. government agencies have developed a database to track whale watching; and a WhaleALERT mobile application for mariners to help reduce risk of ship and whale collisions.

The U.S. is working to reduce the threat of ship strikes, including ship speed restrictions, closures and ship route shifts in whale birthing areas, education and outreach programs.

This week, the International Maritime Organization Safety of Navigation Sub-Committee approved amendments proposed by the United States for ship traffic separation plans off the California coast in the Santa Barbara Channel, coming and going from the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and San Francisco.

Whale entangled in fishing gear (Photo by N. Davis courtesy NOAA/John Dutton Media)

The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee will meet at the end of November to try to adopt the amendments.

The U.S. delegation hosted a showing of the Emmy award-winning film, “In the Wake of Giants,” about the effort to disentangle whales caught in fishing gear in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Sanctuary.

At this meeting, the IWC adopted a set of principles and guidelines for entanglement response, is offering a global network of entanglement response operations and a recommended approach to capacity-building and training for entanglement response.

Wulff reported to IWC delegates on the U.S. effort to combat cetacean diseases and presented information about a U.S. project to map underwater sound-fields and cetacean distribution that could underpin decisions to reduce noise impacts on on whales and dolphins from sources such as military sonar and seismic oil and gas exploration. The U.S. also helped establish a group to work on ocean noise issues.

“The United States looks forward to continuing its partnership with other countries on whale conservation,” Wulff said. “It is imperative that the IWC focus more of its attention on global conservation problems such as climate change, by-catch, marine debris, disentanglement, pollution and ocean noise. This is important work, and we have seen a lot of progress so far, but we intend to continue the push in this area.”

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