Debating Whale Sanctuaries

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Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 51-52
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5731.51e

In reviewing the International Whaling Commission's whale sanctuaries, L. Gerber and co-authors take a purely ecological viewpoint (“Do the largest protected areas conserve whales or whalers?”, Policy Forum, 28 Jan., p. 525). Other key considerations when considering the justification for sanctuaries and their boundaries are that these are practical management measures that, as noted by Ludwig et al.(1), need to “include human motivation and responses as part of the system to be studied.” The decision in 1994 to declare the Southern Ocean a sanctuary for whales was taken in light of the difficulties of regulating whaling in this remote area after revelations that the former Soviet Union had caught protected species for 30 years while systematically falsifying records (2). The boundaries for the sanctuary also recognized geopolitical realities and locations of past catches by the Antarctic whaling industry as well as ecological considerations.

Whales have a special status in international law as highly migratory species, and decisions as to whether they should be exploited must be shared by all countries and not just those who wish to kill them (3). In particular, although the IWC has a unique competence to regulate whaling in all waters, it is customary for the views of range states to be taken into account in the designation of sanctuaries. The Indian Ocean sanctuary was adopted with full support from the range states, and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, which has few range states, was adopted with overwhelming support (26 votes in favor, with only Japan voting against). Even Japan has accepted the decision for almost all species by limiting its formal objection only to minke whales.

The science underlying the design and operation of marine protected areas has advanced considerably since the IWC sanctuaries were adopted, and Gerber et al. make many valuable suggestions for enhancing the effectiveness of these sanctuaries. More recent sanctuary proposals, such as those presented by Brazil and Argentina for a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, have already incorporated the development of a management plan to address these issues.



Papastavrou and Leaper make an important point that IWC whale sanctuaries are established for a number of often nonscientific reasons. As commissioned by the IWC Scientific Committee, our review of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary (SOS) examined the costs and benefits of the establishment of the SOS from a scientific perspective only. Our position remains, however, that IWC sanctuaries—while demonstrating initial goodwill toward preservation of whale stocks—are flawed and that their continued application in their present configuration does little more than provide a false sense of security, by assuming that protections for whale populations are in place.

The science of marine reserves has improved considerably in the past decade. Globally, reserves are being established on the basis of clear ecological principles, seeking measurable objectives, and using sound management plans to achieve these objectives. There does not appear to be any desire by either pro- or anti-whaling nations to incorporate these novel concepts into the management of the IWC sanctuary program. The 2004 IWC meeting in Sorrento, Italy, exemplifies the gridlock gripping the IWC sanctuary program. Anti-whaling nations have co-opted the program into a means to exclude whaling in advance of the application of the Revised Management Procedure/Revised Management Scheme (RMP/RMS), which would replace the current moratorium on commercial whaling, and pro-whaling nations are funding the participation of developing nations in the IWC to garner votes to defeat sanctuary proposals. Meanwhile, scientific whaling continues to occur in sanctuaries. This is an untenable situation that will only be resolved by the implementation of the RMP/RMS, which should compel IWC members to review existing and planned sanctuaries. We agree that IWC sanctuaries could be effective tools for the conservation and management of marine resources; however, without significant changes to the sanctuary program by IWC members, sanctuaries will remain “paper parks” serving little ecological purpose.

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