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Iceland and whaling for scientific purposes

Iceland and whaling for scientific purposes

Questions and Answers

Q: Why is studying whales important for Iceland? A: Iceland's economy is overwhelmingly dependent on fisheries. Fisheries products constitute around 2/3 of the value of Iceland's exports of goods. The sustainability of fisheries is therefore essential for the long-term prosperity of Iceland. The importance of multi-species interactions for rational management of fisheries is widely recognized within various international fora (including e.g. FAO, ICES, NAFO and NAMMCO) and Iceland has already started implementing this approach in fisheries management. For this reason it is important for us to study the whole marine ecosystem and understand to the extent possible the ecosystem's different elements and interactions. Whales are a large component of the marine ecosystem and it is impossible to leave them out of the picture in studying it. Studying whales is necessary to ensure sustainable fisheries and sustainable use of living marine resources in general. Leaving whales out of the equation simply leads to a false conclusion.

Q: Will Iceland catch whales this year? A: Earlier this year, Iceland put a research plan forward for discussion within the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee. The plan included the taking of 50 sei whales, 100 fin whales and 100 minke whales annually for two years. Although all the elements in the plan are scientifically valid and the proposed takes would not threaten the whale stocks in any way, it has now been decided to limit the catches for the year 2003 to 38 minke whales. No sei whales or fin whales will be taken at this time. Iceland has been considering the option of conducting lethal research on whales, in addition to continuing its non-lethal research. Research on minke whales has been considered most pressing and it has therefore been decided to place the emphasis on studying them. Iceland is still interested in the study of sei and fin whales, but it has been decided not to start lethal research on these abundant whale stocks in 2003. Furthermore, the initial take of minke whales will be lower than that which was originally planned for the first year of the scientific plan.

Q: Didn't the IWC's Scientific Committee oppose Iceland's plan? A: No. While there were different opinions on most issues within the Scientific Committee, the Committee did agree that the proposed catch of minke whales is unlikely to have a significant impact on the Central North Atlantic stock of common minke whales. In other words, while opinion was split on many issues the Scientific Committee agreed that the proposed catch is sustainable. Iceland's scientific plan was not submitted for acceptance or rejection, but for discussion. The Scientific Committee as a body therefore neither supported the plan nor opposed it. There continues to be great support for Iceland's plan within the IWC's Scientific Committee. Although there is rarely a consensus on major issues among the scientists within the Scientific Committee, Iceland feels that it is an important forum for an open and transparent scientific debate on the approach it is considering regarding research on whales and their role in the marine ecosystem.

Q: Isn't the proposed whaling illegal because of the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling? A: No. For those countries that are bound by the moratorium, commercial whaling is not permitted. However, any member of the IWC has the undisputed right to conduct whaling for the purposes of scientific research. Iceland's whaling is therefore undisputedly legal.

Q: Was the purpose of the reservation Iceland made upon joining the IWC to enable Iceland to resume whaling immediately? A: No. Iceland's reservation relates only to commercial whaling but not to whaling for scientific purposes. No decision on possible future commercial whaling has been taken. Had Iceland re-joined the IWC without a reservation, this would have made no difference as regards the possibility of conducting whaling for scientific purposes. Without a reservation, Iceland would have exactly the same possibility as it does now to conduct such whaling. Although there was initially a disagreement among IWC members on the issue of Iceland's reservation, since October 2002 Iceland has been generally accepted as a member of the IWC with a reservation regarding the moratorium on commercial whaling. As a part of the reservation, Iceland is committed not to authorize commercial whaling before 2006 and thereafter such whaling will not be authorized while progress is being made in negotiating the IWC's Revised Management Scheme (RMS).

Q: Will Iceland's decision to put forward a research plan that includes catching whales not delay the process of negotiating a Revised Management Scheme (RMS) within the IWC? A: It should not. Iceland continues to place emphasis on finalising the RMS as soon as possible. The RMS, when completed, will enable the IWC to fulfil its role as an international body for the regulation of whaling. Its completion therefore remains a priority task for the IWC and its members. The research plan and the RMS negotiations are separate issues that should not be mixed. Within the IWC, there are ongoing discussions on how commercial whaling should be managed. Agreement has already been reached on how catch quotas should be calculated, based on scientific results, to ensure that whaling is sustainable. The current negotiations revolve around how it should be ensured that those catch quotas are not exceeded by creating a management framework for the IWC called the Revised Management Scheme (RMS). The RMS negotiations have taken a long time, more than a decade in fact, but recently there has been a real progress in the discussions and Iceland hopes the negotiations will be concluded before too long. Various aspects of the 2003 Annual Meeting of the IWC hurt the prospects of making progress on the RMS. A number of countries indicated that they did not consider the IWC's role being the regulation of whaling (which is its role according to the IWC Convention) but the blanket protection of all whale stocks regardless of their abundance. While this type of thinking renders the RMS unnecessary, Iceland remains hopeful that the RMS negotiations can be put back on track. When the RMS will be concluded the IWC will have in place schemes both for calculating sustainable catch quotas and for ensuring that those quotas will not be exceeded.

Q: Will the whale products obtained in scientific whaling be sold? A: According to international law, whales taken in scientific whaling must be processed and utilised. The same article of the IWC Convention that allows Iceland to take whales for scientific purposes obliges Iceland not to waste the products but to utilise them. Members of the IWC are obliged to process the leftover parts from research as far as practicable and sell them as food and for other purposes, according to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). Whale research programs are implemented according to meticulous and costly plans. Proceeds from by-product sales are used to fund research although these will only cover a small part of the costs associated with the research. Also, it would be a waste of valuable resources not to utilize the whales as much as possible.

Q: Will Iceland engage in international trade in whale products obtained in scientific whaling? A: Iceland has no plans to export the whale products obtained in the scientific whaling of 2003. However, there are opportunities available for the export of whale products in the future and this must be seen in light of Iceland's obligation under international law to utilise the whales taken for scientific purposes. However, it must be stressed that any future international trade in Icelandic whale products would be conducted in accordance with Iceland's obligations under international law.

Q: Should the whale products not be consumed domestically rather than be subject to international trade? A: If a whale is consumed, it makes no difference whether or not it has been transported across an international border first. The product remains the same regardless of whether its destination is domestic or overseas. Iceland does not support the view that international trade is fundamentally bad, neither regarding whale products nor other traded products. Nor does Iceland support trade discrimination between large and small countries. The issue of whether or not whale products should be subject to international trade is certainly not an issue connected with the management of whaling or with whale conservation or protection. What matters in this respect is how many whales are taken, not where they are consumed after they are taken. The sustainability of the catches is determined by the level of the catches and present population sizes. This has nothing whatsoever to do with what distance the products are transported before they are used. However, there are two reasons for opposing international trade in sustainably taken whale products. Firstly, one can feel that only large countries should be allowed to conduct whaling while countries that have small domestic markets should not. This discriminatory reasoning can for example conclude that large countries such as the USA and Japan can conduct large-scale whaling but small countries like Iceland and the Faroe Islands can not. Secondly, one can feel that international trade in general is a bad thing and should be minimised. This anti-capitalist reasoning not only applies to international trade in whale products but to all international trade, such as trade in other food products, textiles and industrial products. Iceland strongly opposes both these arguments. Iceland feels it is important to ensure the sustainability of the utilisation of living marine resources, but this goal should not be used to justify inappropriate trade barriers.

Q: If whale products from scientific whaling are to be sold, does that not mean that the driving force is selling whale meat, rather than gaining scientific information? A: No. There is a real scientific need for this research. As explained above, utilizing the by-products of scientific whaling is not only a way to avoid unnecessary waste but also an obligation under international law. The revenues obtained from these sales will be used to cover some of the costs of conducting the scientific research. It is however clear that the sales of the products will not cover the cost of the planned whale research of 2003. Rather than being a money-making exercise, the research will be costly. The government of Iceland will provide funds for the research in view of its importance for maintaining Iceland's long-term policy of sustainable use of living marine resources.

Q: Isn't the research plan simply a cover for commercial whaling? A: No. The operation of scientific whaling and commercial whaling are very different. In commercial whaling the practice is to catch the allowed number of whales in the most cost-effective way. In scientific whaling, the practice is to catch the whales in a way that will result in a scientifically valid sample. Scientific whaling is therefore not a cost-effective operation and not a commercially viable exercise. As already mentioned, the operation in 2003 will cost substantially more than the sales of the products will yield.

Q: Isn't it possible to obtain the scientific information needed for the management of whales without using lethal methods? A: For some whale research purposes, there is no need for lethal methods. For other whale research purposes, lethal methods are necessary. Whale research can involve both lethal and non-lethal methods. Iceland has been active in non-lethal research for many years and continues to make use of such methods when considered feasible for the objectives of the research. For example, a series of large scale sighting surveys has resulted in important scientific knowledge on the abundance of different whale stocks around Iceland and studies using photo-identification techniques and satellite telemetry have yielded useful information of stock structure of certain species. However, there are some questions that can not be sufficiently addressed without taking whales, including most of the questions posed by the Icelandic research programme.

This includes the issue of the role of whales in the marine ecosystem and their interaction with the other components of that ecosystem. To quantify the food composition of whales as an input to multi-species models, it is necessary to examine their stomachs. Recently suggested non-lethal methods for this purpose, such as fatty acid analysis, stable isotope ratios and fecal analysis, may give some insight into the feeding ecology of whales, but on their own, their resolution is insufficient to use as an input for multi-species models, at least for the time being. Additional parameters needed for estimating food consumption, such as estimation of seasonal fattening and metabolic rates, also rely on dissection of animals.

Furthermore, to study whale stock composition by age and reproductive status we need to sample earplugs and eye lenses for age determination and reproductive organs to determine reproductive status and vital rates. Both of these are impossible to obtain by non-lethal means. While there are some indications that pregnancy status of individual whales may be determined from analysis of biopsy samples, such methods are not, for all practical purposes, suitable for determination of reproductive rates and temporal trends. For many of the other analyses (diet, pollutants, genetics etc), access to supplementary information from caught animals, such as age and reproductive status, is essential.

Although it is possible to measure pollutant concentrations in skin biopsy samples from whales, such data is of limited value without further information on the individual. Dissection of carcasses and examination of various organs is necessary to evaluate possible harmful effects of pollutants, as well as to assess the general health status of the whales.

While it is true that it is possible to scientifically study some aspects of whale biology without taking them, it is necessary to take whales in order to address a number of important issues regarding whales and their role in the marine ecosystem.

Most of the above mentioned non-lethal methods have not been validated sufficiently against the more traditional methods based on dissection of whale carcasses. An important part of the Icelandic research proposal is to conduct such a validation by comparing the results obtained by different methods on the same individuals.

Q: Is lethal research on animals widely practised? A: Lethal research on animals is conducted in every country around the world. In concluding whether such research is justified for wild animals one must look at factors such as the abundance of the relevant population, the scientific need for the research and the humaneness of the taking. These criteria are met in many research programmes around the world, including this plan for the taking of minke whales for scientific purposes. Even in the study of farm animals that can be supervised and observed to a much greater degree than wild animals, let alone wild marine animals, lethal research methods are used to study many elements. The reason is that the suggested non-lethal alternatives, such as analyzing feces, are not sufficient for getting reliable scientific conclusions. One of the research plan's objectives is to assess the applicability of non-lethal methods.

Q: Although there is a need to take whales, does Iceland's research plan not suggest taking more than is necessary? A: For the scientific results to be statistically relevant there is a need for a certain sample size. The necessary sample size depends inter alia on each particular research objective. For studies of descriptive nature, like diet composition of minke whales in Icelandic waters, it is very difficult to determine statistically a priori the required sample size as no previous studies have been conducted in this area as this depends largely on spatial and temporal variability in feeding habits. The research proposal is for a so-called feasibility- or pilot study, intended to serve as a basis for future research. The nature of these future studies, including the extent to which lethal- and non-lethal methods will be applied, will depend on the outcome of these feasibility studies. Iceland's plan does not suggest taking more whales than is needed for making sure the results are scientifically significant. In fact, in 2003 the take will be less than was envisaged for the first year of research in the original scientific plan, partially due to a later start of the programme.

© Scoop Media

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