Setting The Scene: Report from the Scientific Committee Meeting

As Cheryl has described, this year promises to be an important one at the International WhaIing Commission (IWC). However, before the politicians take the stage to make the real decisions, there are other things to go through first. The first phase is for the scientists to pour over data on many facets of whale management and make their best recommendations on what the data says about whale management. We are under no false impressions that politicians will respect or listen to what is said at the Scientific Committee (SC), but its an important part of the process.

As a scientist who has studied whales for 30 years, I wear a number of hats. My “day” job is as the chief scientist of The Whale Center of New England. In that capacity, I have served on the IWC’s SC as an invited participant for the better part of the past ten years. I recently returned from this year’s meeting, and, as VP of ACS (one of my other “hats), wanted to set the table for what Cheryl will report as the meeting proceeds.

There are basically three stages to an IWC meeting – the SC, then a series of “technical committees” (finances, killing methods, conservation), and then a week of the full commission meeting. That is the part that Cheryl will be attending and reporting on as it goes. However, while I can set the scene and describe what was talked about, I can’t revel conclusions; they are considered confidential until the full SC report is made available to commissioners on the first day of the full meeting.

The meeting this year is in Agadir, Morocco. While he destination sounds exotic, is it actually anything but. Agadir is a coastal town in southern Morocco, which has been in existence for hundreds of years. However, in 1960, an earthquake destroyed almost the entire town. They are still rebuilding. With all the charm of, say Cleveland (not that Cleveland isn’t wonderful… but… you get the picture).

However on the waterfront, it’s a whole different story. The coast is covered by a series of Miami-beach-like resorts. Pools, drinks, tourist trains running up and down the strip. Major promenade along the beachfront, with many tourists from France, Spain, and Russia. Somehow, in the midst of this, sits a conference center. And that’s where the IWC is this year.

The SC meeting consists of both meetings of the full committee, and a longer session of sub-committee meetings. There are three 90-minute sessions at a time, with 12 sub-committees on different topics – the Revised Management Procedure (the formula used to set quotas when necessary), In-depth Population Assessments, North Pacific Minkes, Bowhead-right-and-gray-whales, Aboriginal hunts, By-catch, Environmental concerns, Ecosystem modeling, Whale watching, and Small cetaceans come to mind. Each sub-committee both discusses topics asked by the Commission, and also raises its own issues that they hope the Commission will take note of.

This year, scientists were also asked to comment on the “draft” numbers in the Package described by Cheryl… were they sustainable? Could they be higher and be sustainable? Would they lead to reductions in populations? These were central questions that often crossed sub-committees at this year’s meeting.
Much discussion this year concentrated on the stick structure of minke whales off the coast of Japan. For years, we have known that there are at least two genetic “stocks” of minkes – one (called the j-stock) that occurs mainly in the Sea of Japan , and one (the O-stock) that occurs in the Pacific ocean. Problem is, j-stock is depleted, has a very high incidental catch off of Japan and Korea, and they occasionally move into the Pacific ocean, but we don’t really know where or when. But to answer the question as to whether the quota requested by Japan is sustainable, we need to know if they are taking j-stock or o-stock animals. And is there another stock off of Korea? If so, their by-catch would not be of j-stock animals, meaning that a) that population is likely even smaller, and b) their by-catch would not count against Japan’s request. A lot rides on the outcome of this discussion, which was quite lively at times.

Other topics of note this year included the effect of ship noise on cetaceans, a focus of the Environment group. It’s great to see this international body taking a look at a growing and important issue. The by-catch sub-committee is continuing its progress on developing a world-wide database to identify areas where this issue can also threaten whales, as shipping and ship speeds rise dramatically and quickly.

Much of my time was spent discussing the status, population structure, and recovery status of humpback whales off of West Africa. This is the latest stock being looked at as the SC looks at each southern hemisphere stock as a part of their “comprehensive assessment” of whale stocks. There are two places off Africa where humpbacks are found – South Africa, where they appear to feed, and Gabon (central west Africa) where they clearly breed. The numbers off Gabon are large; the numbers off South Africa are relatively small. There are a number of animals seen in both places, although tag data tells us that some animals from Gabon migrate to the Antarctic to feed, going way offshore. Easy right? South Africa is one of the places some of the Gabon animals feed. OK, so that’s one possibility. BUT… the two populations are genetically different! So are some of the South Africa animals also Gabon animals, and some are not? And if so, where are the South Africa animals breeding, and is there another area where they also feed? In order to understand recovery, we need to be able to interpret this data. These discussions went on and on. I can tell you that several pool-side bars were cleared of vacationers wondering why these people were so vehemently discussing the movement of whales!

Once sub-committees all finish their reports, after 8 days of work, there is a one day break, and then thefull SC meets to consider summaries of what each sub-committee has done. These discussions form the basis of the full SC report, which will be passed on to Cheryl the first day of the meeting. It should be promptly ignored as politicians then navigate shark-filled waters this year. I hope that by having a rep who was part of these discussions, I’ll be able to help her in the background by understanding where the SC conclusions came from; despite being separated by some 2,500 miles, thanks to the ‘net. So if we can assume that she can tear herself away from her poolside glass of white wine, I know that she will be among the most effective NGO delegates present at the IWC this year.

– Mason Weinrich
– ACS Vice President

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