The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is a voluntary organization designed to maintain sustainable whale populations and govern prices of whaling related products. Created in the wake of serious fears of whale extinction due to overhunting, the IWC was originally signed by 42 nations. Although its membership has risen to 79 participating countries, recent rebounds in whale populations have caused controversy between member nations, unable to agree whether the IWC should be primarily a conservation effort or an active supporter of sustainable whaling practices.
In 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling created the IWC as a regulatory body charged with conserving whale populations and developing the whaling industry. The International Whaling Commission was granted permission to list endangered populations as protected, create whale sanctuaries safe from hunting, set hunting limits and hunting seasons. These standards were adopted by members on a purely voluntary basis, reflecting the member nations’ concern for whale species.
In the first 20 years of the IWC, the commission supported active whaling, which led to further population drops in some whale species. There is evidence that many nations significantly under-reported their whale catch. Some estimates suggest that in the Soviet Union alone killed over 46,000 more Humpback Whales than it reported to the International Whaling Commission.
In the 1970s, Save-the-Whales movements gained tremendous global attention, as whale species populations continued to plummet toward extinction. Pressure was put on the IWC to declare a moratorium on all commercial whaling. In 1982, the International Whaling Commission declared a ban on all commercial whaling to begin in 1986, excepting some scientific and subsistence or cultural whaling practices. Although the ban remains in effect as of 2008, several nations, including Iceland and Norway, have resumed whaling activities.
The International Whaling Commission holds a conference once a year, usually in May or June. The location rotates between member nations. Conference meetings are held by four subcommittees, Scientific, Technical, Finance and Administration, and Conservation. These conferences set regulations for the following year, as well as review the latest information available about whale population and management.
In 1992, in reaction to the extension of the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium, several nations formed an alternative organization, the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO.) This group of nations objects to the ban on whaling, and several members have resumed whaling operations since the formation of NAMMCO. Evidence is not conclusive as to whether or not the hunts of NAMMCO nations are severely depleting populations; therefore they are not in direct conflict with IWC regulations and permitted to remain as members.
Since the 1990s, accusations of dirty politicking have plagued the IWC. The United States, a largely anti-whaling nation, has passed federal laws making it acceptable to ban imports from whaling nations, if there is evidence that they are causing severe harm to the population. This legislation has been received with outrage by some nations, accusing the US of bullying to enforce anti-whaling policy. In contrast, the largely pro-whaling nation of Japan has offered foreign aid to some countries in return for them joining the IWC and supporting Japanese positions. Anti-whaling nations have found this contemptible, and compared it to buying votes.
As the purpose of the IWC is to maintain whale stocks at sustainable levels, they are not primarily a conservation agency. Regulations are decided by votes, so it is the position of the member nations that determine International Whaling Commission guidelines. As whale populations rebound, the possibility of the ending of the IWC moratorium on whaling leads to great concern among whale conservation agencies, and leads to increasing strife within the yearly meetings of the organization.