Science and management of whale hunting

08 September 2011

Interview with 

Simon Brockington and Greg Donovan, International Whaling Commission


Antarctic Blue Whale


Helen - Cambridge isn't necessarily the sort of place you would associate with the oceans, but I've hopped on my bike, cycled a couple of miles outside the city centre, and I've come to meet a group of people who are charged with looking after the biggest animals that roam the oceans. I've come to the headquarters of the IWC, the International Whaling Commission.

Simon - The IWC is a collection of governments that come together to conserve whale stocks and manage whaling.

Helen - I met up with secretary of the IWC, Simon Brockington.

Antarctic Blue WhaleSimon - You can trace its origins to back before WWII but the convention that empowers the IWC was signed in 1946. Since that time there's been some major changes. Back in the early days, in the late 40s, there were 15 contracting governments, all of them pursued whaling interests. And of course as we all know as the decades have rolled by, public attitudes towards whaling have changed, and also the attitudes of the contracting governments themselves have changed.

So what we have now is a very much larger commission. Total membership now is 89 contracting governments and there's a huge diversity of views expressed amongst those governments.

A number wish to continue commercial whaling. Others wish to pursue whaling for nutritional purposes, particularly for indigenous or aboriginal communities. And many other wish to promote the conservation of whale stocks particularly for uses other than hunting, to support industries such as whale watching.

Helen - Joining us head of science at IWC, Greg Donovan.

Greg - Originally, real whale science began actually in association with the whaling industry. Whatever one thinks about that, the sample sizes were very large, and in general quite a number of scientists took advantage of being on whaling boats to look at anatomy, that kind of thing.

And in indeed some of the famous biologists such as Scoresby were actually whaling captains who got interested in biology rather than the other way round.

Helen - A major part of the IWC's work is conducting and coordinating whale research. They've found, for example, that for many whale species, numbers are recovering thanks at least in part to the current moratorium on commercial whaling, which has been in place since the 80s, although there are still some populations that are in danger, and many mysteries remain.

And its that great unknown - of those illusive animals that live their lives in the dark depths - that poses a challenge to the IWC scientists who've taken on the task of working out what levels of whale hunting could, theoretically, be allowed without threatened the future of whale populations.

Greg - It's really not a good idea to experiment in the wild, that's what happenedFin whale with whale populations and that's one of the reasons they crashed. So rather than do real work we use computer whales. I won't tell you how many millions of whale populations we've brought to extinction in our experimental work.

So effectively what we do is we simulate whale populations and we build in huge amounts of uncertainty. For example, we say, what if the environment is changing in such a way that we have increased amounts of disease or a population might at random rash by half. We don't know, but we'd have to test for that.

What we have to do is come up with an approach within this uncertainty still means the populations meets the conservation objectives, i.e. remains increasing or towards the level that is chosen which is around about 72% of its carrying capacity of initial population size.

The way the system works, and it is possible to do it, should you want to do it, is such that in the beginning while you're learning more about the population, it's incredible conservative. For example, if you had a population of around 10,000, in the beginning the catch that would be allowed would be less than 50.

As the procedure learns more because you have more abundance estimates, then the catch limits might go up. When we do our simulations for sustainability we're not saying this is whaling, we're saying this is all human-induced mortalities. The process that we used to allow us to determine what would be sustainable in terms of whaling also allows us for some of these other populations which are in serious trouble where the catch limit would we zero, we know that, wouldn't allow whaling of any kind on it. But that doesn't ship strikes aren't happening, it doesn't mean that bycatch in fishing gear aren't happening. From a populations dynamics point of view it doesn't matter what the motive behind the removal is, it's just a removal.

If you do the right level of work and you're honest as a scientist and accept the uncertainty, and you continue to monitor so you don't think you've got it right, you're always testing, then it's possible to do it. That doesn't mean you have to do it, it just means it's possible.

Helen - And it's not just about the whales.

Greg - We talk about managing whales but we aren't. We're managing humans. And so we know a lot about whales but we also need ot know a lot about humans if you want to do something sustainably.

A key component of any time of system is that if you set rules that those rules are obeyed and seen to be obeyed. One of the problems with fisheries and whaling in the past is that people cheat. For a number of years the commission has been looking at different ways you could do that. Obvious ones are relatively straight forwards, at least to say if not to do - having international independent observers onboard all vessels, that kind of thing.

Science can help a great deal as whale, should people want to go whaling again. Because the genetic side of things, and individual fingerprinting means that actually you can set up a system whereby any legal whale that could be on the market is in a register, and you could actually test in a pretty rigorous whether products on the market are legal or not. We're in the fortunate position, if you like, of being to do that with whales because any catch limits will be relatively small. In principal you could do that with fish, but clearly if you're catching millions of fish then the whole process is considerably more complicated.

It is possible, or it should be possible, for us to develop systems which are essentially foolproof. But that requires a lot of money and it requires a different side and that's for governments to decide whether they do or don't want whaling to take place. And that's quite apart from the science.

Helen - So, probably the most controversial aspect of the IWC's work is whether or not the moratorium on commercial whaling will be lifted. And it's an issue that stirs up debate and leads to widespread accusations that the IWC is stuck between two entrenched camps of pro versus anti-whaling nations. Here's IWC secretary, Simon Brockington.

Simon - Certainly a number of observers to maintain that somehow the IWC is locked into a state of deadlock and is possibly even a powerless organisation. But I would suggest that is probably not the complete picture.

The IWC has all of the power that it had back when it was formed, back in 1946. The only thing that has changed is that the attitude of contracting governments has changed. And this has certainly led to some quite deep divisions within the commission.

To my mind the IWC has responded to that really quite well. It's remained as the key organisation responsible for these matters and each year it works with contracting governments of all view points to try to understand their views and work towards common working wherever that's possible.

Whilst it's true that divisions do remain on the central issue of whaling the commission is more and more starting to look at other areas where it can come together. For example, the number of whales caught in entanglement, in other words accidental capture in fishing gear or ropes and buoys. That's an area where a number of contracting governments have been able to come together to allow to commission to work.

With regards to the central issue of whaling, the powers are still there. The moratorium, which is a pause in whale hunting, is still in effect and the only thing that would change that is if there was a material change in the attitudes of the contracting governments. Its something that's written into the schedule of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, and that would require a three quarters majority of contracting governments to change that decision. There's nothing to suggest that that three quarters majority is likely to be attained in the near future.

Helen - Even with the moratorium on commercial whaling still firmly in place, there's no doubt that whaling does continue. The IWC permits a small amount of traditional whale hunting, and then there is the issue of so-called scientific whaling.

Greg - Scientific whaling is a colloquial expression. Formally within the commission it's called Special Permit Whaling. Over the years there have been various uses of that ranging from taking one or two animals for museum specimens, to taking relatively large numbers e.g. the US took a large number of grey whales to look at issues related to population dynamics.

Helen - And it's not up to the IWC to decide how many whales can be caught for scientific purposes.

Greg - Individual members can say Yes or No they don't like it and of course there's a lot of controversy about it. But in practice we provide advice and member government who is issuing the permits can take that advice or can leave it.

It's a bit like all the other aspects of the whaling issue, people like it to be black and white. So, you'll have one group of people who say this is essential science and without it we won't understand anything. And you have another group of people who say this is commercial whaling in disguise. I'm not going to tell you it's one or the other, because it's complicated.

I think it's certainly not fair to characterise it as saying it has no scientific content. And however we try and be objective scientists it is coloured partly by your cultural and historical background in the way in which you view what is needed, what isn't needed, what's essential, what isn't essential. It makes life being a whale biologist extremely complicated, but also makes it extremely interesting.

Helen - And one way that commercial whaling continues today, is by members of the IWC who choose to object to the global moratorium- and some might say this is something of a loophole in the convention.

Simon - I wouldn't describe it as a loophole. I think this is a provision which certainly exists within the IWC's convention. It's also a provision that exists in almost every convention. There has to be an opt out clause otherwise countries could never ratify it. A country cannot ratify a document that it will be bound by forever, because they cannot predict the changes that will be made in the future.

Greg - I think the other point about the objection procedure is it's rarely used. I think the most obvious one at the moment is in the context of the moratorium. In effect that applied to Norway who goes commercial whaling. The other countries that does the same thing with a reservation is Iceland.

One can argue about the rights and wrongs, but primarily the fact is that under the convention they are not breaking any rules.

Helen - Well, there's no doubt that the IWC as well as dealing with all the issues associated with modern-day whale hunting, are also making some extraordinary discoveries in the whale world.

One study involves Western gray whales - an extremely endangered population, there's thought to be only around 120 left and they spend a lot of time around Sakalin Island in the North Pacific. Working with an oil company operating in the area who want to minimize their impacts on the whales, the researchers decided to try and find out more about where the whales move using satellite tags.

Greg - We had all kinds of difficulties and problems and bad weather. Fortunately, literally on the last afternoon after we'd managed to get some extra funds to extend the project by a week, one animal was tagged. Flex.

Helen - So Flex the whale became something of a celebrity because with his tag in tow he went on an adventure. Instead of staying in the western Pacific, as the researchers expected, he zipped over across the north, and then headed down the coast North America towards an area where a genetically distinct population of eastern gray whales hangs out.

Greg - Ironically it stopped working just 20 nautical miles offshore from the American expert, Bruce Mate, who designed the tags and put the tag on. It was almost like it was a homing tag coming back.

Helen - And the exciting news is that a team of researchers has gone back out to tag more western gray whales - they're in the field right now - hoping to attach up to 12 more tags,- so we'll keep in touch with them, and let you know what they find out.


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