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What is the state of the world’s whales and what will 2017 bring?

What is the state of the world’s whales and what will 2017 bring?

The minke whale can grow up to 35 feet

Sponsored: Last year was another busy 12 months for IFAW’s marine conservation team. We continued our work to protect whales from the many threats they face around the world.

As we look to the year ahead, there is still much to do. We need to ensure long-term protection for these magnificent animals. They sadly face a greater number of threats today than at any other time in history.

Last year ended much like it started, with the Japanese whaling fleet back hunting whales in the Antarctic. This was despite the ruling by the world’s highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), that Japan’s previous Antarctic whaling was illegal and must stop, thus preventing the hunt taking place the previous year.

Yet Japan was determined to continue whaling regardless. At huge cost to the Japanese taxpayer, and all for ‘science’ nobody respects, and products nobody needs. This added another footnote to a year that is unlikely to be remembered for rational decision-making.

Yet between these negative bookends, there were some good results for whales. These give us hope for more positive change as we enter the New Year.

In Iceland, for example, fishing magnate and whaling hobbyist, Kristjan Loftsson, has been behind Iceland’s killing of endangered fin whales. And all in the hope of exporting the whale meat to Japan. A country awash in its own stockpiles of unwanted whale meat. One which has constantly refused and frustrated Mr Loftsson’s attempts to sell his whale meat. (There is no market for fin whale meat in Iceland itself.)

So it was to our great surprise, and pleasure, when Mr Loftsson displayed an uncharacteristically rational side in 2016. He declared he would not be hunting fin whales because of ‘difficulties importing into Japan’.

Perhaps he’s finally seen reason? It’s a shame it took the lives of hundreds of fin whales to show him what we all already knew – that there’s no market for fin whale meat. While there has been no official announcement on Mr Loftsson’s plans for this year, we remain hopeful there will be no return to fin whaling in Iceland.

Thankfully the Icelandic public and tourists seem to be developing a more rational approach to whaling too. We were astounded to discover several years ago that tourists ate 40% of the minke whale meat consumed in Iceland.

These were the same tourists who by the boat-load were steaming out into Reykjavik harbour on whale watching trips to marvel at these awe-inspiring animals. So it is with great pleasure to see that thanks to IFAW’s ‘Meet Us Don’t Eat Us’ campaign, whale meat consumption has dropped to just 13% of tourists.

Many of these same tourists have joined with Icelanders to sign our petition calling for an end to commercial whaling and pledging not to eat whale meat. The petition topped its 100,000 target in August, making it the largest petition ever in Iceland’s history. We’ve also recruited more than 75 ‘whale-friendly’ restaurants to our cause.

More than half the restaurants in downtown Reykjavik have pledged not to sell whale meat. And consider that only 1.5% of Icelanders say they now eat whale meat on a regular basis. This means the end of minke whaling in Iceland cannot be far away.

But sadly, we have grown accustomed to irrational decisions on whaling. So when the Icelandic boats set out to hunt more minke whales we weren’t surprised. As the end of 2016 approached we watched the Icelandic elections with interest. We hoped a new government would recognize the importance of protecting whale watching.

We hoped they’d recognize this as a better option than whaling. Not just for whales, but for the coastal communities that benefit from this alternative and non-lethal ‘use’ of whales.

Interestingly, the make-up of a new coalition government has proved problematic. We are still waiting for a final decision to be announced on which parties will share power. But our hope for 2017 remains the same. We look forward to a positive summer in Iceland. Without fin whaling, and with whale watching continuing to prove much more attractive to tourists than eating whale meat.

Last year was also the biennial meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in late October in Slovenia. The meeting was the first of the IWC since Japan had returned to Antarctic whaling. This, not surprisingly, provided a major discussion point at the meeting. Countries lining up to condemn Japan’s actions and to tighten scrutiny of so-called ‘scientific’ whaling programmes.

But Japan’s response, within weeks of the close of the meeting? It submitted a ramped up plan to hunt more whales for ‘research’ in the North Pacific.

This was undoubtedly a blow to those of us working to protect whales. But within Japan, there are signs that just maybe attitudes are beginning to change.

The Japanese public remains largely indifferent to whaling. Much like Icelanders, there is no great appetite for the meat. But there has been a slow and steady consolidation of the country’s whale and dolphin watching industry.

It seems the Japanese government is finally beginning to grasp the nettle that it might just make more sense to benefit from live whales than dead ones. With the Japanese Prime Minister’s office no less, indicating in a report on growing tourism in Japan ahead of the Olympics, that whale watching provides a great opportunity. Now we have to ensure that the Japanese government puts its money into this venture instead of propping up a dying whaling industry.

IFAW continues to campaign relentlessly both within Japan and at major international forums for an end to Japan’s cruel and unnecessary so-called scientific whaling.

As Japan prepares to host the next Olympics in Tokyo, the world will focus on this beautiful and amazing country.

We hope that Japan will heed calls to abandon once and for all its outdated whaling. We hope it joins other nations in choosing non-lethal methods of research which can gather valuable data from living whales. It would be a shame if in 2020 Japan’s Olympic image is tarnished by the continued slaughter of whales.

So while we have much still to do to ensure whales are conserved for future generations, attitudes are changing. In whaling countries, and beyond the headline-grabbing debates on whaling, the IWC is quietly achieving some good things for whales on the other threats they face, such as collisions with ships, noise pollution and entanglements in fishing gear.

After a year of mixed fortunes for whales, these signs offer hope that this year may bring more positive news.

Head to the IFAW site to find out more about the organization’s work to protect whales and other animals.

Words: Matt Collis