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Saving the Whales Again: Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the International Whaling Commission’s global ban on commercial whaling and looking ahead

Lucy Babey, Head of Science and Conservation, Deputy Director, at ORCA and Chair of the Link Marine Mammals Group, reflects on the 40th anniversary of the International Whaling Commission’s global ban on commercial whaling.

July 2022

Forty years ago this month, government officials meeting at the Metropole Hotel in Brighton reached an agreement that is still considered a landmark conservation victory. Almost three million great whales had been killed in industrial whaling operations since the start of the 20th century, and concerns about the cruelty and sheer devastation of whale hunting had galvanized the public and convinced a majority of members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to vote for a global ban on commercial whaling. The decision, which passed in a 25:7 vote, was fully implemented by 1986 and would save the lives of tens of thousands of whales.

This week, 40 years after the ban was agreed, Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) returned to the (now Hilton Metropole) hotel on Brighton seafront to jointly host a celebration of the historic decision. James Smith, UK Commissioner to the IWC, unveiled a permanent memorial plaque in the hotel lobby. In his speech, he reaffirmed the UK government’s commitment to the conservation and welfare of whales and the future of the IWC and announced a new UK contribution of £300,000 towards its conservation work and operating costs. Guests included government and NGO representatives who have been instrumental in passing and maintaining the ban, including several former UK Commissioners to the IWC, members of WCL, Ambassadors, MPs and local dignitaries.

I had the honour to speak for WCL and a wider coalition of conservation and animal welfare NGOs from around the world to introduce our 50-Year Vision for the future of the IWC as an organization ‘at the centre of global conservation efforts to address threats to cetaceans and enable cetaceans to meet their full ecological potential as engineers of a healthy marine environment’.

Sadly, four decades after the ‘Save the Whales’ movement culminated in the adoption of the commercial whaling ban, the whales (and dolphins) are far from saved. Over the last 40 years, a range of anthropogenic threats have intensified, harming cetaceans directly and indirectly: Increasing numbers of whales and dolphins are struck by vessels, entangled in fishing gear and harmed by ingestion of plastic. Less visible but no less insidious, cetaceans lose critical habitat to climate change, and their feeding and communication are disrupted by increasing underwater noise — forcing them to alter or extend migrations to find food and mates. Meanwhile, chemical pollution compromises their immune and reproductive systems. The situation is so dire that, of the 90 species, 12 subspecies and 28 subpopulations of cetaceans that have been identified and assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 22 are listed as ‘Critically Endangered’, 22 as ‘Endangered’, and 16 as ‘Vulnerable’.

The good news is that the IWC has evolved since 1982 into a modern intergovernmental organisation with conservation at its core and the legal mandate, technical expertise and global reach needed to tackle the terrible toll of these human-caused threats to cetaceans. It has an ambitious 10-year strategic plan for six priority threats — ship strikes, marine debris, bycatch, anthropogenic sound, chemical pollution, and climate change — and is making progress. But to effectively tackle all threats to cetaceans — including those we are still learning about, such as zoonotic diseases — the IWC urgently needs to scale up its existing conservation programmes and commit the funds needed to tackle more threats over the coming, challenging years. The NGOs present at the event used the opportunity to encourage governments to follow the UK’s example by stepping up their financial contributions to the IWC and helping secure new sources of external funding.

The NGOs’ 50-Year Vision is a blueprint for the IWC to fulfill its conservation mandate in the difficult years ahead. It is also a demonstration of the ongoing commitment of the conservation community to the future of cetaceans. Forty years ago, protestors took to the streets around the world to convince their governments to “Save the Whales”. It worked. Today, we need the same vision and passion to secure the future of these incredible animals.

Lucy Babey is Head of Science and Conservation, Deputy Director, at ORCA and Chair of the Link Marine Mammals Group.

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