Whaling moves beyond the harpoon

The baiji or Yangtze River dolphin Image copyright PA
Image caption The baiji, or Yangtse River dolphin, is thought by experts to have died out

The most common question I get asked after International Whaling Commission (IWC) meetings is simple: "What did it do for whales?"

Often, the answer has been: "very little". But at this year's meeting in Panama City, things were a little different.

Amid all the talk of South Korea's proposed return to "scientific" hunting and whether rules for indigenous peoples' whaling are fair, an agenda oriented towards conservation was taking shape.

Rather than a single striking tone, it's a rainbow of smaller colours.

We now have an IWC programme tackling entanglement of whales in shipping nets.

Delegations discussed problems of marine debris and ocean noise; for the first time, they've agreed to hold a workshop on the noise issue.

There are moves to make the forthcoming Arctic workshop focus on what many consider as the biggest threats to cetaceans in the region, namely climate change and oil and gas exploration.

Perhaps most notably, the IWC's scientific committee, which is widely regarded as the most credible organisation in the world on cetacean science, made its strongest statements yet on the plight of small cetaceans.

'Shame and responsibility'

One of the big anomalies in the IWC's world is that while the vast majority of talk concerns the big ocean-going beasts, the most pressing conservation priorities are small species living in national waters.

The baiji or Yangtse River dolphin is almost certainly extinct. The vaquita of Mexico, and Maui's dolphin, a New Zealand sub-species of Hector's dolphin, are competing to be next.

The vaquita, an extraordinary-looking porpoise whose silvery-grey sheen and sculpted shape almost make it appear manufactured, has lost about two-thirds of its numbers in 15 years. In 2008 the estimate was 220 individuals, so it's probably under 200 now.

The last survey of Maui's dolphin, meanwhile, found just 55 older than one year.

Both are threatened primarily by accidental catching in fishing nets.

And the IWC scientists were unequivocal. For the vaquita, they say: "If extinction is to be avoided, all gillnets should be removed from the upper Gulf of California immediately."

For Maui's dolphin, "the committee recommends the immediate implementation" of a proposal to expand the current protected area.

The plight of both species was raised in the meeting's political discussions too, with delegates prepared to do more than shelter in the lee of diplomatic alliances.

"Frankly, it's time for diplomatic niceties and strategies to take a back seat to immediate, concrete action," said Austria's Michael Stachowitsch.

"When a bank or a corporation goes under, there is shame and someone takes responsibility. How much greater must the responsibility or shame be when a highly developed mammal species is lost forever?"

Contradictory positions

Image copyright Other
Image caption There are believed to be fewer than 200 of the vaquita left

In private, some pointed out the contradictions inherent in the position of governments that support a pro-conservation measure somewhere else in the world while allowing a species uniquely under their control to slide to extinction.

Some used a more pungent word: hypocrisy.

Both Mexico and New Zealand voted for the establishment of a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic ocean - which would have required no action from either.

Ditto India - a strong opponent of whaling in rhetoric, but whose custody of river dolphins in the Ganges and Indus systems leaves them categorised as Endangered on the internationally recognised Red List.

Now, you may have read the words above and wondered how things such as recommending a course of action or holding a workshop can make a difference in the real world. Not enough there, you might well argue, to lighten readers' hearts.

One quick counter-example: The Maui's dolphin comments garnered a headline in the New Zealand Herald newspaper saying the IWC had given New Zealand a "slap".

It caused waves in the New Zealand delegation; and if these tweets become a cacophony, a government that wants to drape its head in a wig of nature's colours will have to take notice.

There's no room to wiggle around a species extinction.

Conservation focus

At a more grassroots level, conservation groups have repeatedly issued reports and made recommendations down the years on tackling ocean noise.

They've not had much effect, even when backed up by science.

Similar warnings from the IWC's scientific workshop would carry a lot more gravitas. Their conclusions will find their way into government halls. They'll be taken at official level to bodies such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that have power to act.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A bid for a South Atlantic whale sanctuary failed, but a conservation agenda is taking shape at the IWC

This conservation agenda is mirrored by an increasingly conservation-oriented budget.

Governments' core contributions to the IWC have stayed roughly constant, as one would expect given that membership has hardly changed in recent years.

But discretionary contributions from governments and indeed environment groups is rising - from £330,000 in 2010 to £521,000 in 2011.

Just this week, a coalition of nine NGOs contributed just over £10,000 for work on small cetaceans. The Dutch, Italian and UK governments each pledged a similar amount.

The discretionary pot is now about one-quarter of the IWC's total budget, and most of the contributions are directed at specific conservation activities.

Governments that have advocated this and indeed funded it, such as the UK and the US, are of course very happy about the trend, as are environment groups; you wouldn't say their praise is tumultuous as yet, but it's growing.

WWF's Heather Sohl put it like this: "Historically the IWC focused only on whaling, but the biggest threats to cetaceans today are other human activities such as bycatch, ship strikes and expansion of oil and gas developments.

"This year's meeting has taken great strides toward addressing these risks."

Whaling itself won't go away - the commission's official purpose remains the regulation of hunting. Nor will opposition to whaling. Here, South Korea saw that anger renewed.

But slowly, the stoichiometry of the IWC's rich chemistry is changing - the equation is tilting to what for a majority of countries here has long been the right side.