Cetacean research, conservation and management since 1946 – Interview with Andrej Bibič, Chair of the International Whaling Commission

By Hannah Schartmann.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the global body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling. Andrej Bibič is the current chair of the IWC.

Since when are you working for the IWC? What was your motivation to work for the commission?

I will serve a two-year term as Chair of the IWC. This began in 2018 and will end in October of this year, after our biennial meeting. I have been engaged with the IWC since 2008, and have witnessed how the organization with polarized views of their members, has made good progress in agreeing on some topics of joint interest, and started to improve their efficiency. My motivation is to further advance this work when handing over my chairmanship at the end of our biennial meeting in Portorož.

What is the main aim of the IWC?

The world was a very different place when the IWC was created in 1946. At the end of the Second World War, the priority was to ensure there was enough food for the population. A regulated commercial whaling industry and healthy whale stocks were part of this effort. There has been a moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986 but regulation remains an important role of the IWC in terms of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling, the small scale indigenous hunts that take place mainly in the Arctic. 

The second role of the IWC – ensuring healthy whale stocks – has also changed enormously. The main threats now come from a variety of different manmade problems: bycatch and entanglement in fishing nets, collision with vessels, degradation of habitat due to ocean noise, plastic and chemical pollution. Every year over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die in bycatch alone.  So the nature of the mission has changed but the overall aims remain the same, to regulate whaling and conserve whales.   

How many members has the IWC? What are the requirements to join the Commission?

The Commission has 88 member governments from all over the word. Each joins the IWC by ‘adhering’ or signing up to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This is the legal framework of the Commission.

On which achievement is the IWC in particular proud of?

Different member governments would prioritise different achievements, but I think all would agree that the IWC can be proud of its evolution. Over nearly 75 years, the challenges have changed dramatically and the IWC has been able to respond. This constant evolution is the reason that the IWC has remained the global authority on cetacean research, conservation and management since 1946.   

What are the main threats to cetaceans? What can be done to minimise these threats?

Cetaceans face a range of threats in today’s oceans.  Bycatch is the single biggest problem and according to estimations kills 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises every year. The IWC leads a Bycatch Mitigation Initiative working at all levels – from governments and regulators to local fishing communities – to understand the nature of the problem, share information, trial and promote new, safer fishing technologies. 

There are many other examples and they include a database to map ‘hotspots’ where busy shipping lanes and whale migration routes coincide, a training programme to teach people how to respond safely and effectively to whales entangled in nets and debris, and a Strandings Initiative that has developed guidance and shares real-time expertise with those responding to a live stranding.     

The commercial whaling has been forbidden since 1982. How can you control that nobody is hunting for commercial purposes? Do you know how high the number of unreported cases is? In which countries is probably the highest number of illegal commercial whaling?

The vote on the commercial whaling moratorium was in 1982 and the moratorium fully introduced in 1986. Like other inter-governmental organisations, membership of the IWC is voluntary. The IWC encourages inclusion and debate, including on issues where not everyone agrees such as commercial whaling. But ultimately, governments cannot be compelled to join or stay within the IWC – any government can exercise its right to stay outside the IWC and therefore stay outside its rules.

For IWC member governments conducting Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling there are rules which prevent catching whales at specific times of year and place, as well as certain species and ‘type’ of whale, for example calves, juveniles and mother-calf pairs. Any catch that breaks these rules is known as an ‘infraction.’ The details must be recorded and reported to the Commission. Infractions can result in a range of measure being taken, including financial penalties or prosecution – and this would be under the jurisdiction of the relevant member government.

In some countries exist whaling to support the needs of indigenous communities, like in Russia, Greenland and Alaska. The commission sets catch limits for this type of whaling. How high are the catch limits? Why has the commission categorised whaling into two types? The result is the same: Whales are hunted.

Aboriginal subsistence whaling has always been regarded separately because it is different to commercial whaling.  This is small-scale hunting, not for profit but to meet the nutritional and cultural needs of communities, most of which are located in the coldest and most remote regions of the planet.  No two indigenous hunts are the same: the species and catch sizes vary but are all publicly available on the IWC website.  Each proposed catch is assessed by the Scientific Committee of the IWC, to ensure it is sustainable and will not harm the long-term health of that specific whale population.

Everyone talks about climate change. What are the main consequences of climate change to cetaceans?

Scientists now believe that climate change will affect many aspects of the environment – and the impacts on cetaceans are likely to be similarly broad. Climate change is also likely to exacerbate existing threats such as pollution and disease. The IWC’s efforts have focused on identifying populations likely to be most impacted. These include populations with restricted and specific habitats such as some river dolphins, and cetaceans whose habitat is Arctic waters where the ecosystem has already experienced changes due to climate change.

Do you have any message to the public regarding the conservation of cetaceans?

Understanding cetaceans is an enormous challenge because they spend most of their lives under water, often in the world’s most remote and inhospitable regions. Despite this, people see cetaceans as fascinating and charismatic – unsurprising when you consider that cetaceans include the largest animal that ever lived (the blue whale) and the longest-lived mammal (the bowhead whale). Since 1946, the IWC has been striving to increase our understanding of cetaceans, and conserve cetacean populations. There are strong reasons why people support or oppose sustainable hunting. This is likely to remain a controversial issue, but I hope everyone would agree it is important that the IWC continues working to understand cetaceans and address the many different threats they face today.

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