Those fighting for whale conservation are in mourning. A contingent of pro-whaling countries have yet again thwarted efforts to establish the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary. The 2016 meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) at Portoroz, Slovenia scheduled the proposal for discussion. When it came to voting, however, the proposal failed to achieve the 75 percent majority that it needed for approval. Thirty-eight countries voted for the sanctuary and 24 voted against it.
If the proposal had succeeded, the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary would have protected whales from hunting across 8,000,000 square miles. This would have included whaling for “research,” effectively closing the loophole in the current IWC legislation that has allowed Japan to continue whaling since the 1986 moratorium.
This is not the first time the IWC has voted on the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary. In 1998, the Brazilian government announced its intention to put together a proposal, which the IWC evaluated for the first time in 2001. Since then, it has gone through several revisions, none of which have been successful. Brazil is now one of five co-sponsors of the proposal, alongside South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay and Gabon. Representatives from these sponsoring countries argue that the sanctuary is vital to protect dwindling whale populations.
Despite the proposal’s previous failures, conservationists hoped that this time would be different thanks to a marked increase in public support for whale conservation. This is likely due to heightened media attention, not only in the Southern Ocean, but in places like Taiji and the Faroe Islands. In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s research whaling program had no scientific validity. As a result, it suspended the program the following season.
Conservationists and the media widely criticized Japan’s subsequent decision to resume whaling. Ahead of the recent vote, over one million people added their names to a petition calling for the sanctuary’s approval. In light of this global support, the failure to achieve a 75 percent majority vote is especially disappointing. Worst of all, the countries that voted against the sanctuary were mostly either land-locked (like Mongolia), and/or located far from the South Atlantic in the northern hemisphere (like Russia).
All IWC members that share borders with the South Atlantic voted in favor of the sanctuary. This discrepancy seems to prove that the IWC rules are outdated at best, and corrupt at worst. IWC corruption allegations were so frequent that in 2011, the Commission issued new laws in an attempt to stop rich whaling countries like Japan from openly buying votes from poorer countries like Tanzania. However, it is likely that bribery still takes place behind the scenes leading up to a vote like this one.
If this is true, bribery could potentially prevent the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary from ever being realized. However, there is a silver lining. In 2001, only 19 countries voted for the sanctuary compared with the 34 that supported it this year. It is possible that at the next IWC meeting in 2018, the scales could finally tip in the whales’ favor.