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The International Whaling Commission’s Survival Depends on Creative Diplomacy

Photo of two blue whales
Credit: NOAA, National Marine Sanctuaries

by Anna Linvill

On December 11th 2023, Duke Rethinking Diplomacy Program’s (RDP) Ocean Diplomacy Working Group organized its inaugural event, a virtual discussion on the evolving role of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) with the U.S. Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission and Assistant Administrator for the West Coast Regional Office for Sustainable Fisheries, Ryan Wulff. The discussion was organized by RDP graduate fellow Brianna Elliott and moderated by Andy Read, Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology and Director of the Duke Marine Lab, who also serves as a commissioner on the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.

The Oceans have long been an important and often contentious arena for international diplomacy, as many nations and cultures negotiate for marine resources and are dependent upon the bounty of the sea as a source of nutrition, energy, and economic prosperity. Global efforts towards ensuring the long-term sustainability and conservation of these precious resources and the ocean environment often come in conflict with economic goals and longstanding fishing and hunting practices of seafaring nations, which remain a valued cultural practice for many communities.

It would be difficult to find anyone more knowledgeable about the history and future of the IWC than Ryan Wulff, longtime U.S. Commissioner to the IWC, who kicked off the discussion with a history lesson on the agreement and its discontents. The IWC, signed in 1946 and slated to be renewed in fall 2024, was designed with a narrow mandate to ensure the conservation and orderly management of whale harvesting. The convention was originally oriented towards ensuring a sustainable future for the commercial whaling industry by setting hunting seasons, catch limits, and preserves where hunting was off limits, but since the 1970s, the goals of the majority of IWC signatories have evolved away from continued commercial whaling towards conservation. Meanwhile, over a third of the IWC’s original members remain committed to continuing to hunt whales as an important cultural, commercial, and subsistence activity.

The divergence of economic, ethical, and cultural priorities of the IWC’s original signatories has significantly weakened the agreement, and challenges are compounded by the IWC structure, procedural challenges, and inflexible voting rules. The IWC requires a ¾ majority agreement to enact new regulations on whaling or change its mandate. “With over 85 members, it has become very difficult to make changes,” Wulff explained.

The conflict worsened drastically in the 1990s and early 2000s when a moratorium on whaling was pushed through the stalemated IWC by changing procedural rules to allow for a simple majority to override the objections of recalcitrant members. Many of these members, including Japan, Iceland, Norway, West Africa, and the Eastern Caribbean have refused to abide by the moratorium and continue to hunt whales in their own territorial waters. With major disagreements recurring every few years, Japan, once the largest financial contributor to the IWC, finally left the commission in 2018, now acting only as an observer nation, severely reducing the IWC’s funding and impact. Many other countries are in arears or only pay their dues under pressure at the last minute. The ongoing conflict between whaling and non-whaling IWC members has reached a point that, unless the IWC can evolve, the agreement may be in jeopardy.

With the exception of subsistence whaling for indigenous peoples, the majority of IWC members prefer conservation over exploitation and want to see a continuation of the whaling moratorium, while the whaling countries in the sustainable use group feel like their traditions and economic interests are not being given enough consideration.

Circumventing dissenting members through bureaucratic procedure such as who has standing to vote, administrative changes, expanding committee mandates, and manipulating quorum rules breeds dysfunction. Meanwhile, efforts to extend the IWC mission to include protecting small cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoises found mainly within nations’ territorial waters has not been productive. “Any time this issue comes up in meetings the Japanese delegation walks out,” Wulff shared.  

It may seem like the IWC is doomed in irresolvable diplomatic conflict, but Dr. Andy Read, Director of the Duke Marine Lab, suggested that the survival of the IWC may depend on its ability to shift focus. With the majority of nations favoring a conservation approach, direct catch whaling is no longer the greatest threat to the long-term survival of whales and other cetaceans like porpoises and dolphins. Noise, entanglement, accidental catch (by-catch), and boat strikes pose a much greater danger to these beloved and valued species. The IWC may be able more effective if the commission can move away from unproductive debates on whaling and focus on the impact of other industries and fisheries on marine mammals.

Science may also act as a valuable tool for bridging the diplomatic divide that is undermining the IWC. As Dr. Read explained, there has been some success in establishing productive collaboration between conservation minded members and traditional whaling nations through scientific research aimed at establishing best practices, training, and knowledge sharing. While formed under less-than-ideal circumstances as an administrative committee, the IWC Conservation Committee may, nonetheless, prove an effective vehicle for moving the IWC in a more productive direction.

There is broad support for its recent non-binding resolutions on plastics and marine debris, and its efforts to organize whale disentanglement, by-catch mitigation, and large cetacean stranding trainings could be a way to shift focus from whaling to more urgent and less controversial threats.

The evolving international debate around the sustainability and ethics of whaling and the future of the International Whaling Convention (IWC), illustrates how changing cultural values and economic priorities can erode diplomatic agreements leading to intractable diplomatic dysfunction and conflict. This is exacerbated when agreements are not flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions as they occur. The IWC is a perfect example of the need to be mindful of structure and flexibility when crafting diplomatic agreements and the difficult and delicate diplomatic work of balancing sustainability, cultural values, and the human prosperity derived from the ocean’s limited resources and fragile ecosystems. Its future in 2024 and beyond depends on IWC members’ diplomatic creativity, open-mindedness, and pragmatism.

The Ocean Diplomacy Working Group was conceived by RDP graduate fellow Brianna Elliott and launched in 2023 through a grant from Duke’s Office of Global Affairs that includes members from several schools and programs across Duke, including the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke Law, the Duke Marine Lab. The group includes an interdisciplinary mix of students, faculty, and practitioners at Duke who are interested in the complex political and social issues, institutional arrangements, agreements, and negotiations involved in ocean diplomacy. Their goal is to improve connections between science, scholarly research, and the diplomatic process so that policy makers and diplomats have the most up to date scientific information as they craft policy and international agreements with enormous impact across ecosystems, cultures, national borders, and international fora. The Duke Rethinking Diplomacy Program is grateful for the longstanding support of the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation.