Phil Dwyer is the author of Conversations On Dying, and is currently researching a book on Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling.
My oldest son, who this year turned 36, has never lived in a world where it was acceptable to hunt whales. He was born in 1982 – the year in which the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body that regulates the whaling industry globally –placed a moratorium on commercial whaling.
The moratorium was initially intended to be temporary and has never been made permanent. The IWC granted whaling nations a four-year grace period to adjust to the lost revenues and jobs, so the moratorium didn’t come into force until 1986. It has been in place ever since.
This 32-year stay of execution was threatened last week, at the IWC’s plenary session at Florianopolis, Brazil.
Japan objected to the ban when it was first introduced. It has lobbied for its removal ever since. Last week, Japan introduced a resolution calling on the IWC to set catch limits for certain “abundant” species of whales, a resolution which would see us go back to the days of commercial whaling. Almost one million whales were slaughtered by industrial-scale whaling between 1900 and 1965.
Norway and Iceland, the only two nations which continued their hunts after 1986, supported the proposal. They are both members of the IWC, but continue to hunt whales thanks to a loophole in the IWC’s moratorium.
Since 1986, Norway, Iceland and Japan have killed over 30,000 whales. Almost half were killed by Japan, under its scientific research whaling program in the Antarctic.
Japan’s proposal last week failed. The vote was 27 for, to 41 against. Resolutions require a 75-per-cent majority to pass. But the rhetoric of the Japanese before and during the IWC meeting make it clear that Japan’s patience has finally run out. It seems more likely than at any time in the past 36 years, that Japan will leave the commission and return to commercial whaling.
The IWC’s future is in serious jeopardy. If Japan leaves, it will likely take its pro-whaling allies with it, and has threatened to set up its own organization for the regulation of whaling.
Where does Canada stand in all of this? Canada left the commission in 1982, arguing that there was not sufficient scientific evidence on the abundance of whale stocks to justify the whaling ban.
But that was nearly 40 years ago. There is now extensive research on whale populations. More importantly, there is now a significant (and growing) body of evidence that whales are vital to the health of marine ecosystems, and of the planet as a whole. They feed at depth, and excrete vital nutrients at the oceans’ surface. These nutrients feed phytoplankton, which in turn feeds the plankton that feeds the fish. The great whales also constitute a huge biomass, storing carbon that would otherwise be released to the environment and would contribute to global warming.
Canada’s coastline is over 200,000 kilometres long – nearly four times longer than that of Norway – which has the second longest in the world. At least eight species of great whales inhabit these Canadian waters (humpback, fin, sperm, sei, blue, northern right, minke and gray) along with a number of smaller whales and other cetaceans (orca, beaked, beluga and short-finned pilot whales).
Outside of the obvious environmental factors, Canada has many reasons to concern itself with the conservation and management of whales. We have a significant whale-watching industry, serving hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly.
Meanwhile, fish and seafood are among Canada’s largest exports of food products – an industry worth $6.6 billion in 2016. Some fishing communities have argued that the recovery of whale populations since the moratorium has hit fish stocks, but we now understand that whales are net contributors to healthy fish stocks.
Also, Canada is one of the few places in the world where Indigenous hunters still hunt whales. Similar hunts in Alaska, Eastern Russia, Greenland and the Caribbean island of Bequia are protected by the IWC under its Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling program.
Canada should be protecting its interests at the IWC and, given the fragile nature of the commission, should be providing leadership to a vital international forum for the protection of one of the most important species on the planet (the commissioner for Monaco, Professor Frederic Briand, an expert in marine food webs, describes whales as the “architects of biodiversity in our oceans.”) It astonishes me that Mali, a landlocked African nation, is a member of the IWC, while Canada is not.
Canada does collaborate with the IWC on its research initiatives. Canadian scientists provide vital data to the IWC, helping to inform the commission’s science committee on whale stocks. It also sent an observer to the Florianopolis meeting. But its long absence as a member of the commission is both baffling and shameful, given our interest in the health of our oceans.