Whale researchers are giving a thumbs-up to this week's decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to stand by a 21-year-old commercial ban on whaling. "This is a big win for the great whales," says Patrick Ramage, global whale program manager with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, because it stymies Japan and Iceland's efforts to reopen commercial whaling.
The global ban was enacted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986 after whale populations collapsed in the 1970s from overhunting (Science, 8 June, p. 1411). "In no case have they completely recovered," says Phillip Clapham, a marine biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington. "And in many cases, they're a fraction of what they were" at the beginning of the 20th century. Although some populations of blue, right, fin, and gray whales appear to be doing well, he says, others remain at very low numbers. Indeed, there are a mere 2200 blue whales in the Southern Ocean today--not even 1% of the estimated 240,000 a century ago.
Japan, which offers whale meat in upscale restaurants and school lunches, requested on 6 June that CITES authorize a full review of the population status of the 13 great whale species. It hoped that such a review would lead CITES to recommend lifting the ban for some great whale populations, particularly certain minke, gray, and Bryde's whale populations, which researchers say may be relatively healthy. On the same day, Iceland submitted a proposal asking for a review of the central North Atlantic fin whale; Iceland believes this population has recovered sufficiently to withstand limited hunting. Cetacean researchers regarded both proposals as a challenge to IWC's ban, as well as to its authority as the recognized international body for assessing and managing whale populations.
To the researchers' relief, CITES Animals Committee voted down Japan's review request on 6 June, and Australia attached an amendment to Iceland's proposal, calling for the committee to not conduct any review of large whales until the commercial ban is lifted. The decision was also a victory for the relationship between IWC and CITES, with the CITES Animals Committee agreeing that it would not review the status of any large whale species as long as IWC's hunting moratorium is in place. "It means the status quo will be retained," says Nicky Grandy, a marine biologist and secretary of the IWC.
Japan continues to stand by its position that "living marine resources" should be managed "for use"--a view shared by Iceland--and is considering withdrawing from IWC. Both countries, along with Norway, continue to hunt whales. Japan relies on a loophole within IWC that permits scientific whaling (Science, 27 April, p. 532), while Iceland hunts minke and fin whales in the North Atlantic under an objection to the ban. IWC has no authority to enforce the ban, but CITES regulations prevent these countries from selling the whale meat internationally.