Our planet's great whales and those who care about them could breathe a bit easier last July, when a misguided proposal to resuscitate the whaling industry failed to secure support at the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Conservation-minded governments led by Australia and concerned groups and individuals worldwide fought hard to preserve the global whaling ban. Against considerable odds, we ultimately prevailed. But the battle to save these gentle giants continues. Sustained and steady leadership is urgently needed now if the great whales and the Whaling Commission itself are to survive.
Whales face more threats today than ever before in history; from marine pollution and habitat destruction to entanglement in outmoded fishing gear, collisions with high speed vessels to noise pollution, ocean acidification to climate change. As if these were not enough, the Government of Japan is preparing even now to send its whaling fleet into the Southern Ocean to again hunt up to 1000 of these graceful creatures in an internationally recognized whale sanctuary.
Australia's migration from whaling nation to world-class whale watching destination to global conservation leader is an inspiring journey. The most important conservation achievements at the IWC, including the moratorium on commercial whaling adopted in 1982 and the creation of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in 1994, were achieved with high-level support and engagement from the Australian Government.
Such leadership is urgently needed now. In the immediate run-up to this year's annual IWC meeting, an extensive undercover investigation by the Times of London raised serious allegations of corruption at the IWC, including charges on the eve of the meeting that the acting chair of the Commission had accepted compensation for flights and accommodations at the meeting from agencies operating on behalf of the Government of Japan. Despite these dramatic revelations, he remained as chair during the session. While governments cannot make policy based on press reports, it is critical that the conservation majority moves quickly in the wake of these developments to dramatically improve the situation at the Whaling Commission and in the water for our planet's great whales. Now is the time for a "conservation surge" to secure previous gains, finally end whaling for commercial purposes, and put the IWC on course for a sustainable, whale-friendly future.
Among other elements this will involve:
- Engaging the new Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan and enlightened Ministers in his cabinet and other governments worldwide to quickly bring Japan's unlawful whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary to an end.
- Encouraging Japan, Iceland and Norway, the last three governments still killing whales for commercial purposes, to halt the growing trade in whale products and join the emerging global consensus for whale conservation.
- Restoring the primacy of the IWC Scientific Committee as the recognized international authority on whale conservation science and engaging its expertise to improve human understanding of whales and the many threats they face.
- Continuing to work through the IWC Conservation Committee to advance state-of-the art conservation plans that protect threatened whale species and populations, and encouraging other nations to follow Australia's lead in funding world-class, non-lethal research on whales and their habitats.
- Reforming and recasting the IWC as a more transparent and accountable "International Whale Commission" with a clear and compelling conservation mandate for the 21st century.
This is an ambitious agenda but one that can be achieved, not through a rushed effort to negotiate peace for our time at the IWC, but rather through a more consistent, persistent and long-term approach, both inside it and well beyond that forum, that prioritizes world-class science and conservation of our planet's great whales and their habitats for the 21st century. Rather than facilitating protracted negotiations to define terms under which commercial whaling will be permitted to continue, the time has come to finally bring it to an end. In that sense, our most important work has just begun. Advance Australia fair!
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