Since 1998, Brazil has been pushing for a South Atlantic whale sanctuary, later attracting the support from several South American and African states. But so far, the battle has been met with stiff resistance on the international stage – and it suffered its latest defeat on Tuesday.
In a vote by the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 88 members, 24 countries, including whaling nations Japan, Norway and Iceland, voted against the proposal, causing it to fail to pass the 75 percent threshold needed for approval again, as reported by Reuters.
The episode is the latest a battle that began in 1982 when the IWC implemented a moratorium on commercial whaling. In an international tussle of rights, it pitted countries that promote what they view as sustainable hunting against those who want to see the animals protected and can potentially benefit from whale-watching tourism dollars.
“One side … is supporting the total protection of whales under any circumstances, no kill, no one whale should be killed,” Japan’s IWC Commissioner Joji Morishita said, according to the Japan Times. Other countries, “like Japan, is supporting sustainable utilization of marine living resources including whales ...These positions are so … fundamentally different and that is causing the difficulties or stalemate or deadlock of this organization.”
For the sponsors Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Uruguay, and Gabon, the proposal is in part a preventive measure, as there aren’t any whaling activities in the South Atlantic Ocean now. But it is also a move to right a historic wrong: In the 20th century, the sea was the site of one of the “largest hunt” of large whales, killing off more than 2 million whales through operations by ships from the northern hemisphere as well as the coastal countries, according to the proposal. A sanctuary, they argue, is needed for the whales to recover.
“It takes decades or not, longer, for these whales to recover from whaling,” Matt Collis, team leader with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “That’s why sanctuaries are important.”
Some environmentalists also point out the irony in seeing a proposal by surrounding nations of the ocean rejected by countries up in the northern hemisphere far away from the disputed region.
“That’s what’s so frustrating,” Mr. Collis says. “Over time the proposal evolved to address more than just whaling and brought more countries in that region on board … It demonstrates the support it has in that region up and down the coast.”
This year, the failure to get approval was particularly disappointing to the supporting nations who padded the proposal with additional scientific backing to prevent commercial whaling, expanding the mission to protect whales from threats to their habitat such as ship collisions and pollution.
According to the proposal, at least 51 species of whales exist in that ocean. Certain species, such as the blue whales, were depleted in the hunt, and there is evidence that “little recovery has taken place,” while recovery of species such as fin and sei whales that were depleted is unknown.
The sanctuary is also intended to spur research and ecotourism through whale watching. According to a 2009 report by IFAW, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil are among the top destinations for whale watchers, each boasting more than 200,000 watchers in that year.
"We believe that the sanctuary is a very important initiative in order to ensure the protection of whales within the whole South Atlantic, to promote the non-lethal use of cetaceans and and benign research that's important for conserving whales," Brazil’s commissioner to the IWC Marcos Pinta Gama told BBC News in 2012 when the proposal was up for a vote. "In many countries including Brazil, those activities are bringing in financial resources to local communities, it's really expanding, and we think the sanctuary would very much strengthen this kind of activity in the region."
The opposition from up north may be more symbolic in that their idea of protecting whales – or merely treating them as other marine animals – runs counter to regulations that come with conservation.
Despite the ban on commercial whaling, Iceland and Norway had continued hunting whales by objecting to the moratorium, while Japan uses the exemption of “scientific whaling,” examining the animals for scientific purposes, they claim, before they are sold as meat. According to the IWC, most commercial whaling still occurs in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean and Iceland; most “scientific whaling” is done in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, the Southern Ocean, and in waters off Japan.
Two other sanctuaries currently exist in the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean. But the limitations don't stop whaling: in November 2015, a Japan firm was found hunting for whales near the latter, and despite warnings by the International Court of Justice, has continued doing so. Norway has also been ramping up its whale hunting activities, as previously reported by The Monitor.
On the other hand, Collis says he expects Brazil to also persist in bringing up the proposal in the next IWC meeting.
“In the meantime, that’s where all the work has to be done to make sure that they do understand the scientific work and management planning that has been done,” he says.