International Deal to Tighten Whaling Quotas Collapses; Moratorium Holds

A controversial proposal to end the 24-year-old ban on commercial whaling was shelved today at the International Whaling Commission's (IWC's) annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco. The 88 member governments of the IWC failed to reach an agreement on details of a plan that would have legalized whaling by some nations in return for more oversight of the hunt by the commission. The proposal was put forward by the group's chair, Cristian Maquieira, after a committee studied the problems facing the commission for more than 3 years. IWC is divided between pro-whaling nations and those that are more conservation-oriented. But many scientists were unhappy with Maquieria's proposal, with more than 200 signing a petition yesterday that asked IWC to maintain the ban.

Even some members of the commission's scientific committee, which tracks the health and populations of whale species worldwide, opposed the proposal, saying it undercut the committee's work, which included calculations of how many whales could be caught. The plan would have included quotas arrived upon by political negation instead of science.

"Although it's too early to declare victory, there's a good chance now that science will not be sidelined as would have been the case had the chair's proposal been adopted," says Justin Cooke, a mathematical modeler in Freiburg, Germany, who represents the International Union for Conservation of Nature at the IWC meeting. "Under the chair's proposal, the Scientific Committee's work would have been effectively irrelevant."

Other scientists, however, including Douglas DeMaster, the chair of the IWC's Scientific Committee and deputy commissioner for the U.S. delegation at the IWC, argues that "whales lose while the moratorium stays in place." That's because the whaling nations currently set their own quotas. Although the United States actively participated in developing the chair's proposal, it did not support it. But the delegation "regrets that the IWC failed to reach agreement on a new paradigm that would improve the conservation of whales."

IWC enacted the ban in 1986 after commercial whaling drove many whale populations to the brink of extinction. Currently, a trio of nations—Japan, Norway, and Iceland—continue to hunt, despite the ban, doing so through loopholes in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty. One of these loopholes permits taking whales for scientific research. Japan conducts such "scientific whaling" in the Antarctic's Southern Ocean and North Pacific, while Iceland and Norway filed objections to the overall moratorium, a position that allows them to continue their hunts. Since the ban, the three nations have killed more than 33,000 whales. But discussions to limit Japan's hunts broke down at the IWC meeting, when Japan and conservation-minded nations could not agree on the size of future catches, or the proposal's overall plan to phase out hunting altogether.

Feelings of mistrust have plagued the meeting, following reports in The Times of London, that Japan uses its offers of international aid to buy the support of poorer nations' officials. Yet there is hope that the talks may continue in the future, after a cooling-off period, delegates to the meeting say.