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Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the IWC's ban on commercial whaling

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the IWC's ban on commercial whaling

During the 20th century, almost three million great whales were killed in industrial whaling operations for their oil and meat, which caused many species to be on the brink of extinction.

At the peak of their operations, commercial whalers were killing an average of 70,000 whales a year, and in the 20th century, 2,894,094 whales, including 874,068 fin whales and 761,523 sperm whales, were slaughtered.

On 23rd July 1982, The International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed there should be a worldwide ban on commercial whaling, which came into place from 1986. The ban was agreed on a 25:7 vote and is known as the commercial whaling moratorium. The moratorium is one of the most significant conservation victories and remains in place today.

Forty years after this significant event, Wildlife and Countryside Link (Link) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) returned to the same hotel in Brighton (now the Hilton Metropole), where government officials held the historic meeting in 1982, to host a celebration of the decision. Guests at the event included government and NGO representatives who have all been active in passing and maintaining the ban,  former UK Commissioners to the IWC, Ambassadors from several countries across the world, MP's and local dignitaries.  

During the event, the UK Commissioner to the IWC, James Smith, unveiled a permanent memorial plaque in the hotel lobby and, during his speech, reaffirmed the UK Government's commitment to the conservation and welfare of whales and the future of the IWC. He announced a new UK contribution of £300,000 towards the IWC's conservation work and operating costs. This contribution will support vital work to address significant threats to whales and support developing countries to participate in IWC meetings, ensuring decisions are representative of all members. This financial support will help the IWC to continue its excellent work in the conservation and management of cetaceans.  

ORCA's Head of Science and Conservation and Deputy Director, Lucy Babey, is the Chair of the Link Marine Mammals Working Group and was honoured to speak during this celebration event. She spoke on behalf of Link and a broader coalition of conservation and animal welfare NGOs and introduced a 50-year vision for the future of the IWC as an organisation 'at the centre of global conservation efforts to address threats to cetaceans and enable cetaceans to meet their full ecological potential as engineers of a healthy marine environment'. On the commercial whaling ban at the event, Lucy said: 

"The IWC moratorium on commercial whaling was one of the biggest single conservation measures ever introduced, and its legacy resonates even today. To celebrate this milestone is a privilege that I know everyone involved feels lucky to be a part of, and we are delighted that the UK Government has decided to reaffirm its commitment to the IWC to ensure the legacy of this momentous decision is safeguarded for years to come. Future generations can look back on this watershed moment and see a time when people who cared about the ocean came together and did something special, and in that spirit, we are proud to have been a part of marking this occasion."

Despite the commercial whaling ban being put in place by the IWC, whales and dolphins still face a multitude of threats, these include but are not limited to ship strike, chemical pollution, bycatch and noise pollution. As a result of this, of the 90 species, 12 subspecies and 28 subpopulations of cetaceans, 22 are listed as 'Critically Endangered', 22 as 'Endangered', and 16 as 'Vulnerable'. In recent years the IWC has begun to recognise these threats and has moved towards a broader conservation agenda. It has a 10-year strategic plan for six priority threats — ship strikes, marine debris, bycatch, anthropogenic sound, chemical pollution, and climate change — and is making progress. The NGOs present at the event in Brighton took the opportunity to encourage governments to follow the UK by stepping up and supporting the IWC with financial contributions to support their vital work in the conservation of cetaceans. 

NGOs have a 50-year vision for the IWC to fulfil their conservation mandate during the challenging years ahead. It also shows a commitment to the conservation of cetaceans in the future. When this historic event took place 40 years ago, protestors worldwide took to the streets and convinced their government to 'Save the Whales'. This worked, and today we need the same vision and passion to ensure these incredible animals can be saved.