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2 THE IWC 1949–59 AN EXERCISE IN UNCERTAINTY BECOMING CERTAINTY U nder the IWC’s stewardship during the 1950s, hunting was mainly focused on three species—the blue, fin, and humpback. Each of these species, despite warnings from the commission’s Scientific Committee, was hunted to the point of near extinction in the Antarctic, where the majority of whaling operations occurred.1 In retrospect, it is tempting simply to blame the period’s excessive hunting on the five governments that effectively controlled Antarctic hunting—the United Kingdom , Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, and the Soviet Union—by explaining their actions only in terms of a single-minded pursuit of profits that gave short shrift to conservation initiatives. But while such thinking no doubt was prevalent in the IWC at the time, and contributed greatly to the depletion of some Antarctic stocks, this account of the reasons behind excessive hunting provides only a partial explanation, since it ignores how perceptions of scientific uncertainty affected management policies during this period. In the course of explaining the controversy and disagreement that surrounded the IWC’s setting of catch quotas and their implementation, this chapter will focus on the treatment and interpretation of scientific uncertainty by the commission’s members and scientists. The reasons why the IWC’s members continued to approve quotas that were in excess of what the SC believed to be sustainable—the strong postwar demand for fats, the financial pressures caused by intense competition and declining stocks, and the compelling need of various industries to recoup the high levels of investment spent on infrastructure—will be outlined, but only briefly, since the economic forces that drove whaling during this period have already been examined in detail elsewhere.2 36 For the purposes of this study, explanations of why governments and whaling industry representatives argued in favor of what many believed, or at least suspected, to be unsustainable policies are of course important . But of particular importance is the question of how this situation was played out and rationalized in the IWC by the parties involved. The industry’s pressing economic imperatives at the time encouraged varying degrees of unwillingness within the commission to accept scientific advice aimed at conservation, but they tell us little about how scientific advice was actually relegated to near irrelevance in the IWC, an organization that had declared its policies “shall be based on scientific findings.” To borrow the parlance of a police investigation, the motive appears to be clear (financial pressures) and the victim easily identifiable (conservation of whale stocks). I will contend, however, that the weapon involved was none other than the invocation of scientific uncertainty. Further, as we will see, this is most often the weapon of choice for governments and organizations seeking to discredit scientific advice that advocates policies that do not match existing political and economic priorities as defined by criterion I (utility) and criterion II (compatibility with already established needs).3 To illustrate how scientific uncertainty can be employed to pursue a desired policy outcome, we turn to the fin whale debate, which occurred in the IWC during the mid to late 1950s and also shares some important similarities with many of the problems the commission struggles with today. WHALING BEFORE THE IWC As many observers and critics have noted, conservation issues were never taken seriously by the international whaling community prior to the Second World War—in spite of several earlier whaling conventions being initiated along with some steps taken (primarily by the United Kingdom and Norway) to curb the excessive hunting that had characterized pelagic whaling for most of its history.4 In the modern era, heavy capitalization of the various whaling industries in the years following the First World War led to intensive hunting, which resulted in oversupply in the whale oil market by the early 1930s, a subsequent drop in market prices, and further depletion of species such as the blue, humpback, and right whales. Industry attempts to reduce the number of animals taken at this time were at best only partially effective, since these efforts were based more on economic concerns than on any genuine awareness of the pressing conservation issues THE IWC 1949–59 37 that would have such a profound effect upon whaling5—the scenario, in effect, for the events of the late 1940s and 1950s. In retrospect, it is perhaps ironic that the international situation accompanying the end of...


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