Australia is a world leader for the protection and conservation of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises).
Australia stopped whaling in 1979 and, since then, has been a global advocate for cetacean conservation.
Australia’s long-term policy objectives are to maintain the global moratorium on commercial whaling, permanently end all forms of commercial whaling (including so-called ‘scientific’ whaling), and reform the International Whaling Commission into a modern conservation organisation.
International Whaling Commission
During the 19th and 20th centuries, commercial whaling brought many whale species to the brink of extinction. To address this, in 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was signed to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and manage the development of the whaling industry. There were 15 original signatories to the Convention – all whaling nations at that time, including Australia. The International Whaling Commission is the decision making body responsible for implementing the Convention. The Commission has 87 members.
Australia's Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission is Dr Nick Gales.
In 1982, the Commission agreed to a global moratorium on commercial whaling, which came into effect in 1986. The moratorium has been extremely successful in ensuring the recovery of some populations of whales, while some other populations remain at historically low levels. Australia continues to work closely with other countries to make sure the moratorium stays in place.
Unfortunately, despite the moratorium, some countries still undertake commercial whaling and special permit whaling (whaling for scientific research).
This century, in addition to whaling, cetaceans face a number of other threats including climate change, ship strikes, and being caught in commercial fishing gear, known as ‘bycatch’.
In recent decades, the Commission has evolved to become the global authority for whale conservation. The Commission’s scientific agenda improves our understanding of the nature and scale of threats that global whale populations face, and the Commission’s conservation agenda includes management considerations (for example Conservation Management Plans) for whale watching, ship strikes and many other issues which are important for whale conservation. The Conservation Committee’s strategic plan outlines the outlines the priority threats to whales, priority actions, measures of success, key partnerships and resourcing.
Australia is engaged in a range of committees under the Commission, and is chair of two working groups. The Standing Working Group on Special Permit Programs is responsible for providing information and recommendations to the Commission about the scientific review of special permit whaling programs. This information helps the Commission to properly debate and make recommendations on these programs. Australia also chairs the Standing Working Group on Conservation Management Plans. These plans provide a framework for two or more countries to work together to address threats to the most vulnerable cetacean populations. There are plans in place for four cetacean populations – you can read about them on the Commission's website: Conservation Management Plans.
Southern Ocean Research Partnership
Australia is also the initiator and a strong supporter of the International Whaling Commission’s Southern Ocean Research Partnership.The Partnership is developing, testing and implementing non-lethal scientific methods to estimate the abundance and distribution of whales and describe their role in the Antarctic ecosystem. The Partnership’s work has repeatedly demonstrated that whales do not need to be killed in order to study them.
Australia has provided $2 million to the Partnership since it was established in 2009, as well as significant in-kind contributions. The Partnership’s Secretariat is hosted by the Australian Marine Mammal Centre. The Centre is part of the Department, and the national research centre focused on understanding, protecting and conserving the whales, dolphins, seals and dugongs in our region.
Minke Whales off Davis station in Antarctica (Photo: Frederique Oliver)
International Whaling Commission meetings
The Commission is the decision making body established under the Convention. It meets every two years.
The 67th meeting of the International Whaling Commission was held from 4-14 September 2018 in Florianopolis, Brazil.
Following an Australian-led process, the Commission provided an unambiguous view that Japan had not justified the need to kill whales for science in the Southern and North Pacific oceans. The Commission recommended that Japan not continue whaling as part of its so-called ‘scientific’ programs unless it could justify it.
The Commission also considered the findings of the first independent review of its governance arrangements. All Commission members agreed to progress governance reforms. Australia co-sponsored the resolution that established the independent review in 2016.
The Commission made a number of other decisions on the management and conservation of whales. For example, the Commission rejected Japan’s proposal to overturn the global moratorium on commercial whaling. The Commission also reformed how quotas for Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling are set, and adopted the Florianopolis Declaration, which re-affirms the Commission’s commitment to the conservation of cetaceans.
The full report from the meeting is available on the Commission’s website.
The 68th meeting of the International Whaling Commission will be held in Slovenia in September 2020.
Australia's legal action against Japan in the International Court of Justice
The International Court of Justice delivered its judgment in the case concerning Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v Japan: New Zealand intervening) on Monday, 31 March 2014. The Court found that the grant of permits under Japan’s Southern Ocean whaling program, JARPA II, was illegal as it could not be justified as being for the purposes of scientific research under Article VIII of the Convention. As a result, the Court ordered that Japan cease JARPA II, and refrain from granting any further permits under that program. Since then, Japan has resumed whaling in the Southern Ocean through a program called ‘NEWREP-A’. Australia continues to strongly oppose Japan’s whaling operations in the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific.
Additional information on the judgment is available from the Attorney-General’s Department.
Australia also supports the conservation of whales through engagement in other international fora.
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
CITES contributes to conservation by regulating international trade in endangered species. Australia is one of more than 150 countries that are party to the Convention. Appendix I of CITES lists species which are threatened with extinction. Ten of the 12 great whale species listed in Appendix I are found in the Southern Hemisphere.
Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS)
The Convention aims to conserve terrestrial, marine and avian migratory species and their habitats. Australia became a party to the Convention in 1991 and is also a signatory to a number of agreements and memoranda of understanding developed under the Convention, including the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and their habitats in the Pacific Islands Region.
- Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and their habitats in the Pacific Islands Region
Six of the nine great whale species listed on Appendix I of the CMS are found in the Southern Hemisphere. Appendix I lists migratory species that are in danger of extinction throughout all, or a significant proportion of, their range.
Five great whale species listed on Appendix II of the CMS are also found in the Southern Hemisphere. Appendix II lists migratory species that have an unfavourable conservation status or would benefit significantly from international cooperation.
For Appendix II species, range states must endeavour to conclude international agreements aimed at benefiting the species, giving priority to those with an unfavourable conservation status.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 requires that any species that occurs in Australia and is included in either of the Conventions’ appendices must be listed as a migratory species for the purposes of the Act. There are 18 whale and dolphin species that occur in Australian waters listed in the appendices. Therefore, they are listed as migratory species under the Act.