Iceland, Japan, and Russia have joined forces to intervene a whale sanctuary located in the South Atlantic Ocean, defying the International Whaling Commission. According to the latter, the government of Brazil proposed in 1998 the creation of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary.

The proposal was left without approval but it has recently regained significance and it will be discussed by member states at the upcoming IWC meeting in Slovenia. The South Atlantic Ocean has been exploited for its whales by both coastal whaling and fleets foreign to the region. These incidents have been reported by South Atlantic nations, who argue that they should have a say in the exploitation of whales in their oceans.

Whaling in the Faroe Islands near Norway. Image credit: Wikimedia.

The struggle to curb whaling

The IWC states that the enactment of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary is in line with the commission’s guidelines and “entirely consistent with current practices regarding marine conservation worldwide and has the potential to enhance socially important activities such as research and public education, particularly in developing countries.”

The SAWS would contain at least 50 species of whales in 7.722 million square miles, but the opposition led by Japan, Iceland, and Russia, allowed 23 other countries to reject the proposal, which needed a 75 percent majority. It received only 38 votes of approval out of 64.

Apparently, the countries who backed the proposal where those who rely on whale-watching for tourists. The proposal for creating the SAWS, mostly pushed by South American countries, has not passed in any of the discussions held by the IWC in more than 10 years

“What is the most disappointing is that all these efforts are ultimately being undermined by IWC member countries who are thousands of miles away, not even in the southern hemisphere and some even on the other side of the world,” said John Frizell, a whale expert from Greenpeace.

Not everyone wants to save the whales

Conservationists argue that the creation of SAWS would allow many whales and dolphins to regain their numbers, seeing that almost 2.9 million whales have been killed in the southern hemisphere between 1900 and 1999. This is according to a study titled “Emptying the Oceans: A Summary of Industrial Whaling Catches in the 20th Century,” which takes its data from the IWC reports on whaling. 

The report also notes that the Soviet Union intentionally understated its whaling numbers. Between 1948 and 1973, the USSR reported to the IWC a total 2,710 whale catches while in reality, it caught over 40,000 whales. At the time, the Soviet Union was isolated from world politics and economics, factors credited as the main contributors to its flagrant whaling practices. Japan, Iceland and Russia are the most dedicated whale hunters in the world. 

Japanese whaling ship. Image credit:

“The paper clearly demonstrates what whaling did to a number of whale populations and species, some on the brink of extinction. Why would we want to turn back to that world? Whales are some of the most iconic animals on the planet,” stated Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program, regarding the results of the study.

Japan, one of the fiercer opponents to whale conservation, argues that whales have recovered their numbers, making whaling appropriate and not contrary to the conservation of the environment. They are firm in the argument that Japan’s whaling practices have scientific purposes.

“Sustainable use of marine living resources, including whales… is perfectly consistent with environmental protection. This proposal is against the principle of sustainable utilization of marine living resources,” stated the IWC commissioner for Japan.

Fin whales and sperm whales have been the most hunted species on a worldwide spectrum, accounting for over half of the whales hunted in modern history.

Whaling was regulated as early as 1986, and even so, whaling countries kept pushing for lesser restrictions. Whaling has been performed since at least 3,000 BC, making it a lifelong practice of coastal countries making use of the blubber, oil, and meat of whales.

Whaling became an industrialized practice in the 17th century, and it gained momentum in the 19th century as whale oil, also known as “train oil” was used for oil lamps and for making soap and margarine. Currently, whale oil has little use and commercial whaling is primarily for obtaining meat. Whale oil is primarily obtained from the blubber of whales, but its use receded due to the existence of petroleum-based products.

The United States carries out whaling practices through nine indigenous Alaskan communities, all under the supervision of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. The hunts have not exceeded the 70 whale-per-year mark, but still, conservationists suggest that these rates are not sustainable, even if the scientific sector of the IWC predicts that the worldwide whale population will grow an average of 3.2 percent each year.

Source: IWC