Whenever I speak to students about the work we are doing to protect the environment the one topic that elicits a robust discussion is that of whales.
Young people simply cannot understand why these majestic creatures of the sea; giant, gentle and mythologised in their reading lists with the story of Moby Dick, are still hunted and killed by countries around the world. And they are right.
While the days of the industrial scale catch are behind us, when nearly three million whales were killed between 1904 and 2000, there is still much to do.
Many of the surviving populations, of the more than 30 different whale species, remain at precarious low levels.
The Antarctic Blue Whale, the largest animal to ever have ruled the sea, has seen its numbers shrink by more than 300,000 during the whaling period to a population today of just a few per cent of what it was.
The North West Pacific Gray Whale is down to just 180 in number, while the North Atlantic Right Whale numbers around 500.
For this reason this week’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Slovenia’s coastal city of Portoroz is so important.
Bringing together almost 90 countries, including some who want to see an end to the 30 year moratorium on commercial whaling, will be a timely opportunity to discuss how we strengthen and modernise the Commission. The Commission is vital as the body that gives effect to the International Whaling Convention, which is in its 70th year.
Australia’s role will be key. When we signed on as one of the 15 founding members of the Convention in 1946, Australia was a whaling nation. However, since 1978 when the Fraser Government ceased whaling in Australian waters, closing the last whaling station in Albany, successive governments of both political persuasions have been active on the world stage promoting whale conservation. This meeting will be no different.
Australia will move two resolutions, the first to deal with so called ‘scientific’ whaling, and the second to improve governance structures within the Commission to make its operations more effective and modern.
Co-sponsored by New Zealand, our resolution on scientific whaling, if passed will see increased scrutiny by the Commission of decisions by countries to grant permits to themselves to kill whales.
Last year Japan was able to issue itself a permit to take 333 Minke whales from the Southern Ocean. This was a new Japanese program given that the International Court of Justice had ruled in 2014 that their previous program was invalid because the science couldn’t justify the catch.
The bottom line is that despite our success in The Hague, Japan’s scientific whaling goes on. Japan, a close friend of Australia, is a vital and strategic partner with us on so many issues but on the issue of whaling we strongly disagree.
Australia’s case for change is based on the argument that important scientific research can, and is, being effectively undertaken by non-lethal means including sophisticated underwater listening stations, acoustic tracking and satellite tagging.
Australia has also initiated and funded the 12 nation Southern Ocean Research Partnership which includes the United States, Brazil, New Zealand, France, Germany, Italy and a growing list of others to deploy research vessels, equipment and scientific expertise to undertake these non-lethal research methods.
The second resolution Australia is putting forward at the meeting around governance reforms is co-sponsored by the United States and New Zealand. As an important multilateral treaty organisation the Commission needs to adopt best practice in resource allocation, work stream management and transparency and Australia’s resolution is designed towards this end.
With Japan a leader of the pro-whaling block likely to be elevated from vice-chair to chair of the International Whaling Commission at this meeting there will many watching closely to see how effectively the Commission runs.
Ocean sanctuaries will be another topic on the agenda with Australia supporting a South American and African push for a new whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic. While a moratorium on commercial whaling may make sanctuaries less urgent than they were previously were, they do remain an important science based initiative in the conservation strategy. They also help to promote a booming $2 billion annual whaling watching industry which currently employs more than 13,000 people. If successful the South Atlantic Sanctuary will join the Southern and Indian ocean sanctuaries currently in place.
Reaching an agreement between the pro-whaling and pro-conservations blocks at this meeting will be no easy task. Historical, cultural and commercial factors all play a part but ultimately it is the conservation of these extraordinary creatures that should be foremost in our minds. This is why Australia will continue its leadership role recognising that whales are a critical part of the ecosystem and we need to do everything we can to protect them.