FAO Observer's Statement at the 34th Annual Meeting (1982)

This year, as in many previous years, the Commission is facing problems. However, the nature of the problems has been changing. Some years ago a major issue facing the Commission was whether it could act in time to ensure the continued existence of the whale stocks. With some exceptions - the bowhead whale is the main example - this issue has been resolved. The Commission has acted soon enough to prevent any species of whale becoming extinct in modern times. The endangered species and stocks - with some exceptions such as the bowhead - are now protected. Several of those which occur close to the coast and whose abundance can be monitored, e.g., the gray whale and some stocks of right whale, are clearly increasing. It is expected, on the basis of our current knowledge of the dynamics of whale populations, that the open ocean stocks, including the large stock of Antarctic whales, are also increasing, but direct evidence is lacking.

Indeed a major scientific problem facing the IWC is to find a method of monitoring the changes in the abundance of Antarctic whales in the absence of commercial harvesting. This monitoring is important in considering the eventual re-opening of these stocks to commercial harvesting, which might be possible for some stocks in the not too distant future. It has also been recognized by the new Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources as being important for its task of conserving and managing the Antarctic ecosystem as a whole. The decline of large whales through over-exploitation has been the main change in this ecosystem during the present century, and the scientists attending the new Commission have noted the problems it could have in fulfilling its responsibilities unless it can monitor the response of the whales to the protection they are now receiving.

The major issues facing the IWC now concern the continuation of whaling as an industry. The main threat has come from the industry itself, through the depletion of the stock from excess catches. Here the past record of the Commission has caused concern, such that none of the baleen whales (other than minke) now support significant industries. The present record is better. Where commercial whaling is still being carried on, the catches are, by and large, within the productive capacity of the stock and should be sustainable indefinitely. However this depends on having adequate scientific advice. It is therefore disturbing that the Commission's Scientific Committee seems to be finding it increasingly difficult to provide such advice as a result of the failure of some countries to make all relevant data fully available to the Committee. If there is a deterioration in the free exchange of data the risk of wrong decisions and over-exploitation will obviously increase. It is also disturbing that some analyses of available data, which have been requested by the Committee, have not been carried out even when the information is available.

The continuation of commercial whaling can also be threatened by management measures that are too restrictive. The most extreme example is a moratorium on all whaling. This is a completely unselective measure. Given the differing status of the various stocks, and the fact that virtually all those species or stocks that are seriously depleted are already receiving complete protection, there seems to be no scientific justification for a global moratorium. A justification for a complete cessation of whaling can be put forward on aesthetic or moral grounds, but these seem outside the terms of reference of the Commission.

Another justification for a moratorium is that not enough is known about the dynamics of whale populations, and that no catches should be taken until adequate knowledge is obtained. The objection to this is that the best, if not the only, way to determine the sustainable yield of a whale stock is carefully monitored harvesting. Certainly our knowledge of whale stocks is far from complete, and there can be considerable argument on just how large a catch can be sustained from individual stocks. However, these doubts are no reason for not taking moderate, and carefully monitored catches from stocks which appear to be in a healthy condition.

Some conflict over the Commission's measures is inevitable given the variation of interests between member countries. The Commission's New Management Procedure attempts to resolve this conflict, and to provide a mechanism whereby the catch quotas can be determined on an objective scientific basis. Provided there is sufficient scientific knowledge - and this is an important proviso - this procedure can work well for stocks that are seriously depleted (a zero quota), and those that are close to the optimum level (catches set a little below the estimated sustainable yield). However, as was pointed out in a note by the FAO observer at the 1981 session of the Scientific Committee, when the stock is not close to the optimum level, but is also far from being in danger, there is no unique pattern of management that can be defined as "best" on purely biological grounds. The implication of the New Management Procedure is that stocks should be restored to the optimum level as fast as possible. However, it may be socially much more important to maintain, so far as possible, existing fisheries rather than look towards a larger fishery at some point in the future. This is likely to be especially true where current catches are small relative to the stock, and to the sustainable yield of a stock of that magnitude. For such stocks the main task of the Scientific Committee should be to determine the impact that current catches would have on the future trends in stock abundance and composition compared with, say, the impact of a zero quota.

The present time is, therefore, a crisis point in determining the trends of the basic policies of the Commission. Should it be considering only conservation in the narrow, protectionist sense, or should it include also the rational utilization of those stocks which can sustain commercial harvesting? It might also be a tuning point in another way. During the past couple of decades the public judgement of the effectiveness of the Commission has been largely based on the degree to which the total number of whales harvested has been reduced from one year to the next. This may seem to be an odd measure of success for a Commission established, inter alia, to maintain a healthy whaling industry, though it was a correct measure in the conditions of the whale stocks in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the major stocks have now been protected for some years, and should be recovering. The commission should therefore be looking to a period when harvesting of some of these stocks can be re-opened.

Management of whale stocks is, of course, a special case of management of natural resources in general, including fish stocks. The success of management, whether of whales, fish or other resources, must be judged not only by the state of the resource, but also by the degree to which rational harvesting can be maintained.

Provided future catches of whales are taken in accordance with good scientific knowledge - which should take account of the effect on krill, fish, and other associated species - FAO looks forward to a time, possibly soon, when it will be possible to increase the allowable catches. It might then be reasonable to judge the effectiveness of the steps taken by the Commission from the increases in the catches that are taken.