The common minke whale falls under the international management jurisdiction of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and NAMMCO. NAMMCO provides scientific advice on stock status and sustainable takes, and proposals for conservation and management to member governments. In recent years NAMMCO has focussed its attention on the Central Stock at the request of Iceland. In 2011 the NAMMCO Scientific Committee concluded that annual removals of up to 229 common minke whales from the CIC area around Iceland are safe and precautionary (NAMMCO 2012a).
NAMMCO is the only international government organization presently operating an international inspection and observation program for marine mammal hunts, the Joint Control Scheme for the Hunting of Marine Mammals. The Scheme contains a set of common elements for national inspection programs for coastal and offshore whaling, including items mandatory for inclusion in whaling logbooks. It also includes an International Observation Scheme, with the overall objective of monitoring whether the decisions made by NAMMCO are respected and that all national and international regulations and requirements are being met. NAMMCO appoints observers to directly oversee hunting and inspection activities in member countries. These observers, who are normally not resident in the country being observed, may go out on whaling vessels to observe hunts, check licenses and relevant certificates, and inspect whaling logbooks. An observer might also inspect landing and processing facilities. Observers report directly to the NAMMCO Secretariat.
The IWC began establishing quotas for the species in the 1970’s. In 1986, the IWC instituted a temporary moratorium on commercial whaling. However, Norway is not bound by the moratorium, as it raised a formal objection to it as allowed under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Greenland continues to hunt common minke whales under “aboriginal subsistence” quotas, which do not fall under the moratorium. Iceland withdrew from the IWC in 1992, after halting its common minke whale hunt in 1985. Iceland rejoined the IWC in 2003 with an objection to the moratorium in place.
The IWC provides assessment and scientific advice on stocks that are hunted in the North Atlantic. However it does not play a direct management role in the commercial whaling by Norway and Iceland, as this would be in conflict with the moratorium.
The IWC does provide management advice for the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling carried out by West Greenland. The recommended strike limits are based on scientific advice on sustainable take and the cultural and nutritional need level of the aboriginal group. The main objectives for Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling are 1) to ensure the risk of extinction is not seriously increased; 2) to enable harvests in perpetuity appropriate to cultural and nutritional requirements, and; 3) to maintain stocks at their highest net recruitment level and if below that to ensure they move towards it. Therefore, while quotas for commercial whaling are limited primarily by sustainability, allowable takes for the Aboriginal Subsistence whaling are limited both by sustainability and nutritional and cultural need. Greenland has expressed a need for 666 tonnes of whale meat annually. The annual quotas of minke, fin, humpback and bowhead whales would produce a total of about 574 tonnes, with meat from minke whales comprising about 50% of the total (Greenland 2012). The most recent recommended quotas for minke whales in Greenland are 12 for East Greenland and 178 for West Greenland.
While the IWC does not presently provide catch limits for commercial whaling, it has developed a methodology for doing so: the Revised Management Procedure (RMP). The RMP was developed by the IWC Scientific Committee and accepted by the Commission in 1994. The RMP has three main objectives: 1) Stable catch limits; 2) No catch for populations below 54% of their original size, or the “carrying capacity” of the habitat; 3) Maximizing yield within conservation limitations. The RMP uses a Catch Limit Algorithm (CLA) to calculate catch limits. The CLA uses available estimates of abundance, a catch series and biological information, as well as the uncertainty associated with this information, to calculate maximum allowable catch limits. Before the RMP and its CLA are implemented for a particular stock, it must be rigorously tested using various stock boundaries and distributions, using computer simulations. While the RMP has not yet been used by the IWC to provide catch limit advice, the Scientific Committee continues to develop the procedure and implement it for various whale stocks. It is also used by Norway to set their own national quotas.
In addition to the international management regimes of NAMMCO and the IWC, each country has its own management program to regulate common minke whaling.
Norway sets its own national common minke whale quotas using advice from the NAMMCO Scientific Committee and the RMP implementation for the Northeastern stock developed by the IWC Scientific Committee. This implementation is reviewed every five years by the Scientific Committee. The quota is subdivided into small areas to spread the catch out over the stock area and reduce the risk of overexploitation. Whaling is restricted to the spring and summer seasons.
Norway also regulates the equipment used in common minke whale hunting to help ensure hunter safety and minimize animal suffering. This includes requirements for the size and type of harpoon guns, grenade type and charge, the minimum calibre and type of secondary killing rifles, and other equipment. All prospective whalers and gunners must pass an obligatory training course, including a shooting course, in order to obtain a licence (NAMMCO 2011a).
Norway has largely replaced human inspectors with an electronic monitoring system to independently monitor the activities of whalers (NAMMCO 2004, NAMMCO 2005, NAMMCO 2011a). The system was fully implemented in 2006. The “blue box” unit consists of a control and data logger designed to independently monitor and log hunting activity data provided by an independent GPS (time and position), and different sensors such as shot transducers, strain transducers and heel sensors placed in critical areas and structures of the boat, to detect when and where a whale is shot and taken on board. The sealed, tamper-proof unit can operate without maintenance for up to four months, and collected data are encrypted. After the hunting season, the encrypted data are collected from the Blue Box, decrypted and analyzed by authorized personnel in the Directorate of Fisheries. In addition to the automated monitoring system, inspectors from the Directorate of Fisheries conduct periodic random checks of hunting activities.
The legitimacy of the harvest is further ensured through the operation of the world’s first wildlife DNA registry. A sample is obtained from every legally taken minke whale. The analysis of 12 DNA loci allows the individual identification of whales: a DNA “fingerprint”. Meat and other products brought to market can then be sampled to check that the products come from legally taken whales. The efficacy of this system was recently demonstrated by a study that included sampling of market products and samples from two beached minke whales. All market products were identified as being from legally-caught whales, while the samples from the beached whales were not (Palsbøll et al. 2006).
In recent years Iceland has set its common minke whale quota in accordance with advice from NAMMCO. Recent quotas have been 200 annually although actual catches have been considerably less than this.
Icelandic regulations require that the gunner take a course in the handling and firing of grenades and harpoons. In addition the gunner must hold a general firearms license to handle the backup weapon. Other regulations specify the size and type of weaponry and equipment used in the hunt (NAMMCO 2011a). Hunters are required to report their catch, including the sex, length and location of each animal taken, to the Directorate of Fisheries. National inspectors accompany whaling boats on a random, unannounced basis.
Iceland maintains a DNA registry modelled on that of Norway.
Minke whale off Iceland. Photo: Marine Research Institute, Iceland.
Greenland sets its minke whale quotas in accordance with advice received from the IWC under the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling program. The Ministry of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture is responsible for regulating whaling in Greenland, and allocates the total quotas among the municipalities of East and West Greenland. About 25% of the quota is allocated to collective hunts in areas that do not have fishing boats equipped with harpoon cannons.
Only full-time hunters can obtain a licence to hunt large whales. To obtain a whaling licence, the hunter must take a course on the safe handling and use of whale grenades. After a whale has been caught, the hunter must deliver a report, containing details of the hunt as well as some biological information, to the municipal authorities, before the products of the hunt can be distributed or sold. Whale hunts and compliance with whaling regulations are monitored by wildlife officers at the local level.
Other regulations define the hunting seasons and stipulate the weaponry and other equipment that can be used in whaling. Harpoon cannons must be inspected every second year. The equipment, firearms and the minimum number of skiffs to be used in collective hunts are also specified in regulations.
At the present time Greenland does not maintain a DNA registry for whale products.