Updated: May 5, 2007
Plight of the stinky whale
AT LAST year's meeting of the International Whaling Commission, a report by 200 leading marine biologists revealed flame retardants, livestock growth hormones, pesticides, herbicides, cleaning chemicals, discarded fishing nets and plastics were killing the world's whales, dolphins and porpoises.
The annual State of the Cetacean Environment report compiled by the commission's scientific committee listed an alarming range of newly emerging environmental threats, including acidification of oceans and loss of food sources caused by climate change.
A substantial section of the report was devoted to the impacts of seismic surveys and ship collisions on whale migration routes. It suggested the world's oceans were becoming so noise-polluted by increased shipping traffic, naval military exercises and seabed gas exploration, whales could be experiencing difficulty using echo-location to navigate through a "fog of noise".
But these concerns weren't high on the agenda at last year's meeting of government delegates to the IWC on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. Instead, the concluding meeting of the commission attended by government ministers, agency chiefs and departmental observers was dominated by political rhetoric, accusations of vote-buying, threats of boycotts and walkouts and time-wasting arguments over minor amendments to the meeting's agenda.
Amid this theatrical furore, the news that high-levels of livestock growth hormones, such as oestrogen, were polluting coastal waters and causing "major reproductive dysfunction in marine species" failed to attract the attention it merited.
Last weekend, a symposium on marine mammal diseases will mark the start of the 59th annual meeting of the IWC in Anchorage, Alaska. The commission's scientific committee met this week to craft its report before government delegates arrive for the commission's final five-day meeting on May 27.
For whale biologists, one of the highlights of their 14-day meeting will be the first comprehensive scientific report on a worrying phenomenon known as "stinky whales". It's a problem that highlights the poor resources currently allocated to global whale research as well as how little is known about the earth's largest creatures.
"Stinky whales" were first reported in 1998, by indigenous subsistence hunters on the Chukotka Peninsula of north-east Siberia. They had killed a number of gray whales (under an IWC permit granted to indigenous communities) that, when towed ashore and gutted, had an over-powering stench reminiscent of hospital-grade disinfectant.
The whales were too contaminated to eat. Their blubber, tongue and internal organs reeked so strongly of the chemical, throat-burning odour, even the hunters' dogs wouldn't go near the carcasses.
During the next two years, more than 500 dead gray whales washed up along the Pacific coast, from Mexico to the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska. Many were females and birth-rates for the species plummeted, with an 83 per cent drop in whale calf numbers over five years, from 1400 in 1997 to less than 250 in 2001.
During discussions last year, the IWC's scientific committee noted "no known cause has been found" for increasing numbers of stinky whales in the Bering Sea.
Only two brief reports have been published, and scientists differ over whether emaciated "stinkies" washed up on beaches could have died as a result of stranding in shallow waters or from toxic effects of chemical pollution.
Dr Gennady Zelensky, a Russian veterinarian working with the Chukotka people claims basic tests indicate the blubber and tongues of stinky whales were contaminated by phenol a highly toxic industrial solvent illegally dumped in vast quantities throughout Siberia by oil refineries, diamond mines and other heavy industries. Hundreds of rivers flow into the Chukotka Peninsula, and chemicals may have contaminated the waters and seabed where the whales feed.
Zelensky told an American journalist he had studied phenol contamination of salmon, sturgeon and whitefish in the Amur River in eastern Siberia. The fish had a similar odour to the stinky whales, and tests showed all fish samples were contaminated by phenol. Further laboratory tests showed fish in the river had up to 70 times the maximum allowable level of phenol set by the Russian Federation's health authorities.
Chemical pollution of oceans and estuaries is shaping as a serious threat to survival of the world's whales, dolphins and porpoises. But there are growing concerns politics are usurping and side-lining important environmental issues at the IWC and changes to the commission's structure are urgently needed to give science a higher priority.
Earlier this month, the United Nations hosted a symposium in New York on whale conservation in the 21st century at which delegates were asked to explore "policies for resolving the current impasse over commercial and scientific whaling" at the IWC's annual meetings.
One of the more radical suggestions that was floated was overhauling and updating the laws that established the commission.
Whaling is regulated by a global convention adopted in 1946 to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks" and the IWC was established to oversee "the orderly development of the whaling industry", including appropriate measures to conserve and replenish whale stocks.
In the 1960s, more than 70,000 whales were hunted and killed each year, pushing some species to the brink of extinction. The IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 to rebuild numbers, with Norway, Japan, Peru, the former Soviet Union and Iceland objecting to the ban.
A three-quarters majority vote by members would be required to over-turn the moratorium. Each year there's speculation that pro-whaling nations may finally have secured the numbers (by sponsoring new members to join the commission) to vote for changes to the convention that would allow resumption of commercial whaling.
At the New York symposium, a Samoan diplomat and International Criminal Court judge suggested the 1946 treaty was out-dated and out of step with current global conservation concerns.
Judge Tuiloma Neroni Slade, former attorney-general of Samoa, argued the treaty did not reflect modern international laws on environmental protection or conservation of living resources, and should be reassessed. There were ambiguities and contradictions about its purpose, allowances for opt-outs and exemptions from treaty obligations and a lack of effective compliance and dispute settlement mechanisms.
Slade said these deficiencies could be corrected, dismissing counter-arguments that whaling and the IWC's role were very complex issues. The IWC did not "have a monopoly on complexity" and the international community had been able to find consensus on equally complex issues, he said.
Slade, as former co-chairman of the global working group on compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, is obviously well-practised at brokering consensus on contentious issues. He suggested a balance between whale conservation and subsistence utilisation could better be addressed by an international diplomatic conference held under UN auspices or a World Commission, overseen by an independent group of qualified, eminent persons.
He also called for a "better-defined purpose and mandate" for the 1946 convention and broader membership of the IWC, but stressed vote-buying (sponsoring nations as members to secure their votes) was an unfair practice "with no place in international negotiations".
Meanwhile, there's plenty of local controversy awaiting the commission's round of meetings in Anchorage. A United States fisheries agency is lobbying for Alaska's Cook Inlet population of beluga whales to be listed under the national Endangered Species Act.
The National Marine Fisheries Service claims fewer than 300 whales remain from a population that numbered more than 1300 in the 1980s. Subsistence harvesting by Alaskan indigenous communities was thought to have been a factor in their decline, but tight restrictions on hunting over the past decade, including three cancelled hunts, have not produced the anticipated population recovery.
The proposed listing is opposed by Alaskan business and industry groups who say it will affect the state's economy by limiting gas and oil developments and commercial fishing. Republican politician Don Young has announced he will challenge the fisheries service nomination.
"I don't think there's a shortage of beluga whales. There's just a shortage of beluga whales coming into the Inlet," he told an Anchorage newspaper.
Source: The Canberra Times
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