Whales, dolphins and porpoises

International Whaling Commission

Blue whale Copyright: Fiona and Dave Harvey

The International Whaling Commission was established under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, signed on 2 December 1946. At this time, there were 14 member states. Today, the Commission comprises 89 countries with only three of those engaging in commercial whaling - Japan, Norway and Iceland.

The Commission has taken some encouraging steps to strengthen its focus on conserving and studying whales - including the establishment of the global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 and in 2003, the establishment of a dedicated conservation committee.

Australia has been a driving force behind strong efforts in the Commission to improve international whale conservation. The Australian Government remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial whaling, including so-called 'scientific' whaling and strongly supports the global moratorium on commercial whaling.

Australia is working hard to transform the Commission into a 21st Century multilateral conservation organisation capable of addressing the full suite of whale conservation needs based on world's best practice and the principles of modern ecosystem-based management.

Australia's Commissioner is Ms Donna Petrachenko.

Australia's legal action against Japan in the International Court of Justice

Media briefing pack

Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia vs Japan: New Zealand intervening)
Background to the oral hearings, International Court of Justice, 26 June to 16 July 2013.

Australia's views on whaling are well known - we strongly oppose all commercial whaling, including Japan's so-called 'scientific' whaling. The government considers that Japan's whaling is contrary to its international obligations and should stop. That is why, on 31 May 2010, the government initiated legal action against Japan in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The purpose of the action is to seek to bring an end to Japan's so-called 'scientific' whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Our decision to go to the ICJ is taken in the spirit of one close friend seeking to resolve differences with another in a calm and measured way. Australia and Japan have consistently said that our differences over whaling should not damage the overall bilateral relationship.

Australia filed its written submissions (Memorial) with the ICJ on 9 May 2011. This was in accordance with an Order from the court that was issued after Australia filed its Application Instituting Proceedings on 31 May 2010. The ICJ also ordered that Japan file its written submissions (Counter-Memorial) by 9 March 2012. In accordance with Article 53(2) of the Rules of the Court, Australia's Memorial and Japan's Counter-Memorial will not be made public until the time of the oral hearings in The Hague.

New Zealand filed a 'Declaration of Intervention' in the case on 20 November 2012. On 6 February 2013, the court decided that New Zealand's intervention is admissible. New Zealand filed its written submissions on 4 April 2013. Australia and Japan replied to the court's invitation to respond to New Zealand's submissions on 31 May 2013.

On 11 April 2013, the court announced its decision that oral hearings in the case will run for three weeks, from 26 June until 16 July 2013 at the Peace Palace in The Hague (Netherlands), the seat of the court. The oral hearings are the last phase of legal proceedings before the court makes its decision.

The Counsel appearing in the case for Australia are the Attorney-General the Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP, the Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson SC, Mr Henry Burmester AO QC, Professor James Crawford AC SC (the Whewell Professor of International Law at the University of Cambridge), Professor Philippe Sands QC (of the University College London) and Professor Laurence Boisson de Chazournes (of the University of Geneva).

The Minister for Foreign Affairs has appointed Bill Campbell QC, General Counsel (International Law) in the Attorney-General's Department as Australia's Agent (he is also Counsel in the case), and H.E. Neil Mules (Australia's Ambassador to The Netherlands), as Australia's Co-Agent.

More information

The following information is available on the International Court of Justice website:

Once the hearing has commenced, the transcripts of the oral proceedings for each session will also be included on the above website.

64th International Whaling Commission meeting

The 64th International Whaling Commission Meeting was held in Panama on 2-6 July 2012. The following report provides a summary of the key outcomes of the meeting and focuses on matters of particular interest to Australia - highlighting Australia's contributions and positions on those issues.

Whale sanctuaries

Sanctuaries are designed to provide whales with a refuge from whaling, allowing species to recover from serious over-exploitation that occurred throughout the 20th Century.

The aim of whale sanctuaries is to benefit long-term whale conservation by:

Australian Whale Sanctuary

Within Australia, all Commonwealth waters are part of the Australian Whale Sanctuary. Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, it is illegal to kill, injure or interfere with cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in Australian waters.

International Whale Sanctuaries

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling includes provision for fixing sanctuary areas under Article V(1)(c). There are two existing whale sanctuaries - the Indian Ocean Sanctuary and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.

At the Commission's 2011 annual meeting, Brazil and Argentina proposed the establishment of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary. Establishment of a whale sanctuary in the southern Atlantic Ocean basin has been on the Commission's agenda for many years. However, despite receiving majority support on each occasion it has been put forward, it has failed to receive the level of support required for adoption by the Commission. The Commission has resolved to continue to discuss the establishment of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary as the first substantive agenda item at the 2012 annual meeting.

The Indian Ocean Sanctuary

In 1979, in its first year as a member of the Commission, the Seychelles introduced the Indian Ocean Sanctuary as an initiative. It prohibits commercial whaling throughout the Indian Ocean extending North from 55 degrees South in addition to adjacent waters including the Red and Arabian Seas and the Gulf of Oman. It was adopted initially in order to protect breeding and calving grounds in the Indian Ocean. It was reviewed and retained in 1992 and in 2002. It will continue to be reviewed every ten years.

The Southern Ocean Sanctuary

In 1992, France initially proposed the Southern Ocean Sanctuary to protect the summer feeding grounds of the Southern Hemisphere great whales. The initiative was adopted in 1994 and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary became another area in which whales were protected from commercial whaling. It prohibits commercial whaling in former Antarctic whaling grounds. The sanctuary was reviewed and retained in 2004 and will continue to be reviewed every ten years.

The Southern Ocean Sanctuary facilitates international, long-term, non-lethal cetacean research programs that provide useful information on the factors affecting whale populations. However, it is an incomplete protection measure as industrial-scale whaling, purportedly for purposes of 'scientific research', continues to target whale species within the sanctuary.

Voluntary contributions

In 2009, Australia made a voluntary contribution to the Commission of $1.5 million to support participation in:

Other conventions

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

The convention contributes to conservation by regulating international trade in endangered species. Australia is one of more than 150 countries that are party to the convention. Appendix I of the convention lists species which are threatened with extinction. 'Ten of the 12 great whale species listed in appendix 1 occur in the Southern Hemisphere'.

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS)

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals is an international treaty aimed at conserving terrestrial, marine and avian migratory species and their habitats throughout their range. Australia became a party to the convention in 1991 and is also a signatory to a number of agreements and memoranda of understanding developed under the convention, including the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and their habitats in the Pacific Islands Region.

Six of the nine great whale species listed on Appendix I of the convention are found in the Southern Hemisphere. Appendix I lists migratory species that are in danger of extinction throughout all, or a significant proportion of, their range.

Five great whale species listed on Appendix II of the convention are also found in the Southern Hemisphere. Appendix II lists migratory species that have an unfavourable conservation status or would benefit significantly from international co-operation.

For Appendix II species, range states must endeavour to conclude international agreements aimed at benefiting the species, giving priority to those with an unfavourable conservation status.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 requires that any species that occurs in Australia and is included on either of the convention's appendices must be listed as a migratory species for the purposes of the Act. There are 18 whale or dolphin species that occur in Australian waters listed on the appendices. Therefore, they are listed as migratory species.