61st Meeting of the International Whaling Commission

61st Meeting of the International Whaling Commission – Madeira, June 22-26, 2009

Portugal and the magnificent island of Madeira, where whales move peacefully offshore, hosted the 61st meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), where whales were the focus of not-so-peaceful negotiations. The Cousteau Society sent two representatives—Clark Lee Merriam from the US office and Noémie Stroh from the Paris office—as official observers to monitor discussions.


1. The Future of the IWC

To help resolve deep divisions in the IWC over its ultimate purpose—the advancement of commercial whaling or the conservation of whales—a Small Working Group was established two years ago to develop a proposal for a way forward. When it reported that it was unable to come to agreement, the Commission extended it for another year. Delegations praised the SWG process for having improved the civility of discussions—a moot accomplishment. Since most negotiations were held behind closed doors and Commissioners were pressured to offer only resolutions that had already gained consensus, civility came at the price of transparency and accountability. When delegations called for greater involvement of civil society, the SWG process was opened to NGO observers—but a Support Group, dubbed the “Small Small Working Group,” was established to continue work in private.

2. Lethal research vs. non-lethal research

The dominant division between Commission members is the question of Japan’s scientific whaling as a way to continue commercial whaling under the moratorium. A new approach to resolving the impasse was proposed—to make research whaling subject to the advice of the Scientific Committee—but Japan flatly rejected the idea as an encroachment on its sovereign rights. In contrast, the Southern Ocean Research Partnership began in March 2009 with 12 member countries (Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, the US, France, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Uruguay). The initiative has three goals: a focus on conservation projects, the development of non-lethal research technologies, and the close linkage of projects to the priorities established by the Scientific Committee.

3. Greenland and humpback whales

Greenland, through member government Denmark, submitted a request for approval of taking ten humpback whales for its aboriginal subsistence whaling, in addition to the minkes and fin whales already being hunted. Many members had strong reservations about proof of need for the additional take. After lengthy private discussion and under pressure to avoid a vote, the Commissioners agreed to reserve its decision for an intersessional meeting to be held by the end of 2009.

4. Climate change

A resolution submitted by the US and Norway and adopted by consensus acknowledges the threats posed by climate change to whales, a concern underlined by the Scientific Committee. The resolution requests member nations to take climate change into account in conservation and management plans for cetaceans. It also appeals to governments to take action to reduce the rate and extent of climate change.

5. Participation of civil society

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are allowed to attend meetings of the IWC as observers and to submit opening statements, which are not part of the formal record. Many NGOs, including the Cousteau Society, have been battling for more representation, on a par with other international treaty organizations such as CITES. Although the IWC Chair can invite NGO interventions, organizations have almost never been allowed to address the Commission until last year. Again at this meeting, three speakers from each side—conservation or pro-whaling—were allotted five minutes to speak. France, supported by other delegates, noted the constructive interventions made by the NGOs and urged a greater role for NGOs.

More on the IWC process