The UK-based IWC, which has 89 member countries, is marking 30 years since the implementation of its moratorium on commercial whaling, as well as its own 70th birthday.
As its biennial meeting opened in Slovenia, one persistent source of concern was the effects of a loophole in the moratorium on commercial whaling, which allows for whaling for scientific purposes or for aboriginal subsistence.
Japan, along with Iceland and Norway, are singled out for flouting the moratorium and for trying to use the loopholes to justify their continuing whale hunts and subsequent sale of whale meat for human or animal consumption.
Tokyo even ignored an International Court of Justice ruling in 2014 that the Japanese annual Antarctic whale hunt was commercial, and not for science as claimed.
The hunt resumed in late 2015 and more than 300 Minke whales were killed.
“As many people know, the ban has never been fully implemented," Clare Perry, oceans campaign leader for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EI-A), a UK-based NGO. " We want the meeting in Slovenia … to recognise the ban on whaling has been an enormous conservation success and it should be a permanent ban.”
Japan defends whaling
The Japanese Whaling Association justifies Japanese whalers' hunts and kills by arguing that whale populations need to be managed.
The IWC meeting could decide to counter or temper such arguments, according to Aimée Leslie is WWF cetacean programme leader. She says proposals to this end are on the table in Slovenia, from for example, Chile, or Australia and New Zealand.
“In terms of the argument that whales eat fish and therefore are a threat to the world’s fisheries, Chile’s resolution makes the case that whales play such an important role for the health of the ecosystem, that it contributes to fisheries and to coastal communities who depend on them,” she comments.
The meeting should find ways of ensuring that IWC’s legal decisions, such as those enshrined in the moratorium on whaling for commerce, are respected, Leslie comments.
One of WWF’s pet campaigns for cetaceans is the struggle against by-catch fishing - a practise that leads to whales being caught up in huge, catch-all, nets.
By-catch is the biggest threat to cetaceans, Leslie says, the cause of death for 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises a year and wantrs the fishing industry or fisher-people to use alternatives.
Even more worrying for the survival of cetaceans, according to the EIA, are indirect causes.
It is time to go further and turn the moratorium into a permanent ban, Perry says, arguing that it would give the commission time to apply itself to mitigating human-generated environmental degradation, such as “climate change, chemical pollution, the amount of plastic we’re throwing into the oceans, noise pollution“, which destroy the marine environment, notably the Antarctic base-food, krill.
The Japanese Whaling Association accuses NGOs of misleading the public. It compares eating whale meat in Japan to eating fish and chips in England.
It's cultural, insists the JWA. However, the NGOs argue, the stakes are not the same.