Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary

Member countries of IWC. Author: Lokal Profil

Early in the 20th century, the rapacious global appetite for whale oil and other products drove whalers to the Southern Ocean, with disastrous results for whales. In 1994, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) established the Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary called the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary (SOWS). Japan has continued to kill whales in the Sanctuary under an exemption for so-called "research whaling."


Whaling harpoonIn the years prior to the IWC’s historic 1982 decision setting all commercial catch limits to zero for an indefinite time (the “moratorium”), the Commission had already put in place a number of important protection measures, among which the setting of individual zero catch limits, over time, for all the large baleen whales in the Southern Hemisphere, a moratorium of indefinite duration on the catching of sperm whales, and a prohibition on pelagic whaling (i.e., whaling using factory ships accompanied by catcher boats) for all species and stocks except the minke whale. Thus the direct effect of the 1982 decision, as far as the Southern Ocean was concerned, was to set zero catch limits for the minke whale throughout the Southern Hemisphere, and to confirm all of the existing zero catch limits for the other species.

One of the main reasons for the 1982 decision was to allow the depleted species and populations an opportunity to recover, not only in terms of their abundance but also to permit them eventually to reassume a more robust and natural age and sex composition. This was further reinforced by the IWC’s subsequent decision, in 1994, to establish the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary (SOWS), covering the summer feeding grounds of an estimated 80-90% of the world’s whales. The rationale for creation of the SOWS included several elements, perhaps most importantly the need for long-term protection of all the whale species for which the IWC has acknowledged conservation responsibility (especially in the context of the development of the Revised Management Procedure (RMP) within the IWC’s Scientific Committee in the early 1990s).However, in contrast to the 1982 decision, the SOWS proposal included the concept of ecosystem restoration, with a view to healing the deeply wounded Southern Ocean ecosystem as a whole.

Current Issues

Some whale species and populations appear to be increasing under protection (view a poster of Southern Ocean whale and dolphin species) but it remains unclear to what extent the Southern Ocean ecosystem might return to anything like its biodiverse and biologically productive state before "modern whaling" began in the early 20th century. For a number of IWC members the SOWS was also part and parcel of a strategy of protecting the precious and unique Antarctic region as a whole. It was furthermore hoped that the creation of the sanctuary would encourage long-term non-lethal research on these populations, of a type and on a scale that had not been supported by Commission members until then. Since the 1982 decision came into force, however, government funding of research on the status of whales in the Southern Ocean has been largely directed to studies related to the possible resumption of commercial whaling on particular species.

While it is the IWC’s duty to monitor the consequences of its own decisions, prime among them the landmark decisions of 1982 and 1994, a unique opportunity to do so in the Southern Ocean has been lost by the IWC's failure so far to organize long-term surveillance of the region. The IWC's Scientific Committee now has no accepted estimate even of the approximate number of Southern Hemisphere minke whales. ASOC finds it remarkable that no attempt has yet been made by the IWC to estimate the numbers of the other baleen whale species from the second and third circumpolar sighting series conducted as part of the IWC’s International Decade of Cetacean Research (IDCR).

The research conducted in the Antarctic over the last two decades under Article VIII of the ICRW has involved the killing of nearly ten thousand minke whales and 13 fin whales. The majority of the IWC's Scientific Committee, and the Commission itself, have repeatedly said that this "scientific whaling" has contributed little or nothing either to information needed for proper management of any renewed whaling under Article V of the ICRW or to better scientific knowledge about whales in general. In particular, reviews carried out by the Scientific Committee have shown unequivocally that the JARPA (Japanese Whale Research Program under special permit in the Antarctic) programme has failed to attain any of its originally stated objectives, such as estimation of the natural mortality rate of minke whales and the nature of interactions among baleen whale species.

Moreover, countries that strongly support continuing the moratorium on commercial whaling and strengthening the SOWS are showing signs of wavering in the face of insistent demands for IWC-sanctioned catch limits from Iceland, Norway, Japan, and their supporters. At the 2010 IWC meeting a proposal was introduced that would allow the first commercial quotas on whales since the 1982 moratorium. Some countries that are officially anti-whaling, like the United States, expressed their opinion that the proposal was better than allowing the status quo. Although the proposal failed, this capitulation to whaling interests was disturbing.

Our work

ASOC supports a SOWS in which no whaling for any purpose is allowed. There is no legitimate scientific justification for lethal whaling - nonlethal, modern scientific methods can provide all the information whale researchers need. Whale meat is not particularly popular in Japan - the government is merely propping up a moribund industry with wasteful public subsidies. Whale watching, by contrast, is extraordinarily popular and the industry is expanding at a rate faster than that of the tourism industry as a whole. The ethics of killing these intelligent and magnificent creatures aside, there is clearly no compelling economic or scientific reason for countries to reward whaling countries for decades of flouting international standards. Many countries made the tough decision to cease whaling activities when the moratorium was agreed despite economic costs or historical tradition, and the decision to allow a privileged few to resume whaling with the blessing of the IWC would be unfair. Whaling caused immense harm to the ecosystems of the Southern Ocean and there is no evidence that they have recovered. Read ASOC's plan for the management of the Sanctuary here . ASOC urges the IWC to uphold its obligations to Southern Ocean whales by conducting research to examine the extent of recovery of whale populations, and by working to end the scientific research whaling as soon as possible.