By Simon Brockington
The International Whaling Commission pre-dates the term biodiversity by several decades, but in 1946, the founding members of the IWC had grasped the need to conserve species. At that time, the imperative of those whaling nations was wholly commercial, but nevertheless, they acknowledged the importance of conservation as well as regulation, when they created the Convention that continues to underpin the work of the IWC today.
The 65th meeting of the IWC was held in Slovenia last month. The broad conservation mandate of the organization continues to surprise some newcomers, yet the range of threats to cetaceans is greater than ever. Whaling is now only one of many man-made factors potentially impacting on the health of whale populations, and the IWC work programme is continually evolving and expanding to understand and address these threats.
Entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris is arguably the biggest welfare issue for cetaceans today. Unable to return to the surface, entangled animals may drown. Others are forced to tow heavy debris that prevents feeding, and may include thin fishing lines that lacerate the skin causing infection or amputation of fins. At last month's meeting, the Commission reaffirmed unanimous support for the IWC's global entanglement response programme. This initiative brings together experienced responders from around the world, and collaborates with national governments and regional organizations to build safe and effective entanglement capacity in parts of the world where none currently exists.
The vast challenge of marine debris resurfaced (no pun intended) as the Commission also received reports from two workshops assessing firstly, scientific and secondly, policy aspects of the issue. Perhaps here, more than anywhere else, coordination and integration are imperative to making meaningful progress, and the Commission asked for further consideration of how this might be achieved. The IWC is able to contribute data on the effects of marine debris on whales – and specifically the consequences of ingestion and entanglement. The international policy response to marine debris is moving forward through the combined work of many organizations, including both national and international agencies, and the IWC has much to contribute in understanding the effects on cetaceans.
Commissioners also endorsed updates on work programmes addressing many other aspects of habitat degradation. These included co-sponsorship of a workshop on the soundscape and soundfield mapping, a new phase of the IWC Pollution Project assessing the toxicity of microplastics and PAHs in cetaceans, and a workshop examining the impact on cetaceans of increased marine activity in the Arctic.
Marine activity is one of several threats to the critically endangered western North Pacific population of gray whales. In 2010, a Conservation Management Plan (CMP) was developed in conjunction with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Further work followed, and at last month's meeting, IWC Commissioners from three of the range states were able to sign a Memorandum of Understanding undertaking to collaborate in implementation of the management plan.
The IWC has developed CMPs for other whale populations: the critically endangered southern right whales off the coasts of Chile and Peru in the South Pacific, and a second population of southern right whales off the coast of Argentina, whose recovery is threatened by kelp gull harassment, entanglement and ship strikes.
Assessing the impact of ship strikes on cetaceans is problematic, and it is clear that more research is needed. The Commission received an update on work to build a global ship strikes database that will enable scientists to better understand the problem, and to ensure mitigation measures are targeted and effective. To help achieve this, the Commission is forging closer links with the shipping industry. Whale watching is another industry with which the IWC enjoys a constructive and growing relationship. The Commission endorsed a programme of work in this area, and the next stage is production of a web-based, ‘living' handbook for the whale watching industry.
The most important ingredient to the success of the IWC's work to conserve whales, or any work in this field, is collaboration. Many people are quick to dismiss the commercially motivated alliance that created the IWC in 1946, but this was early recognition that without collaboration there would be no whales.
From its earliest days, this organization has benefited from the generous sharing of both expertise and time. The number of people working, at some point, under the umbrella of the IWC continues to grow and diversify. In Slovenia last month, the Commission expressed gratitude to all of these people. The Commission also agreed that greater collaboration is needed to achieve the maximum impact on a wide range of important issues. Work is now underway to turn the range of Resolutions adopted, and other agreements reached, into a programme of work for the two year inter-sessional period. The programme will be busier and broader than ever before, but its impact will be limited without concerted collaboration at international, regional, national and local levels. I look forward to working with as many organizations as appropriate and possible over the coming two years.