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75th exec secretaries 2The IWC commemorated its 75th anniversary in 2021

A series of events were held during the year and in the run-up to the anniversary date of 2 December.  Like many organisations, the Commission was unable to hold an in-person meeting this year and events moved online, including a virtual birthday toast to close a Virtual Special Meeting of the 88 member governments in September. The pandemic did not prevent a gathering of staff based in Cambridge and including the four Executive Secretaries who have led the IWC Secretariat since its formation. Here are some of their reflections on the past 75 years.  

Ray Gambell: 1963 – 2000 

"I joined the IWC Scientific Committee in 1963.  This was the time when the Commission had established the Committee of Three, later Four, independent scientist to carry out assessments of the world’s whale stocks and provide advice on appropriate catch limits. Catches, particularly from the Antarctic, were in serious decline but the major whaling nations were unable to agree on reductions necessary to avoid extinction both of the whales and the industry.  Scientists from around the world worked together to pool all the available information on the stocks, their migrations, growth, reproduction and other characteristics needed for the Committee of Three /Four to carry out this programme.

commission01Since its inauguration, the Commission had a part-time Secretariat provided by the UK Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in London. The development of the scientific work and the administrative workload called for a permanent arrangement and so it advertised for a full-time Secretary.  I applied, and after a couple of years of wrangling between the major nations about a suitable candidate, I was appointed in May 1976.  One of my first tasks was to find new office accommodation for the embryo organisation, and to recruit staff.  So it was that we moved from London to Cambridge.  The first people to join the staff were most fortunate choices that set the foundations for a long-term and successful administration. 

From this flowed the development of management procedures which gave rise to ground-breaking mathematical modelling techniques which have also been applied to aboriginal subsistence whaling and subsequently in other fisheries.  The Secretariat developed teams devoted to collating and verifying the catch statistics, and publishing the peer-reviewed scientific papers submitted as working documents to the Scientific Committee.  It established an International Observer Scheme to verify the currant catches. IWC 52 Adelaide 003

In addition, all the documentation for the Annual Meetings of the Commission was prepared before and during the meetings.  Copying technology developed over the years from typing waxed sheets, duplicators, electronic stencils, to copying machines and collators, so that our life seemed to revolve around this equipment.

As interest in the work of the Commission grew over  the years more national governments, not necessarily directly involved in the whaling industry, joined the organisation. Increasing numbers of non-governmental organisations also attended meetings as Observers, so that the size and range of the organisation itself grew far beyond its initial structure.  In 1963 there were 18 member governments and 70 people at the 15th Annual Meeting held in London; in 2000 there were 41 member governments and 349 people attending the 52nd meeting in Adelaide, Australia."

Nicky Grandy: 2000 - 2010

IWC75 Ulsan"My time as Secretary to the Commission co-incided with a period of extensive change and development of the organisation. Membership continued to grow, increasing from 41 countries in 2000 to 88 in 2010 and likewise the range of issues addressed by the Commission and its Committees, and the Scientific Committee (SC) in particular, continued to widen, reflecting the differing priorities of Contracting Governments regarding the management and conservation of whales.

I was always impressed by the breadth and depth of the Scientific Committee’s work, the dedication and commitment of its members (including to long working days) and its ability to reach consensus on often very difficult issues. In this first decade of the new century, the SC made excellent progress on its work on the Revised Management Procedure and the advice it was able to give to the Commission on Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling. It was encouraging to hear of the increasing abundance, albeit from very low levels, of some whale stocks such as Antarctic blue whales and southern right whales, but it was disheartening to hear the SC’s repeated warnings regarding the dire status of certain large whale stocks (e.g. North Atlantic right whales, Western North Pacific gray whales) and small cetaceans (e.g. bajii and vaquita) and its repeated calls for urgent action to reduce anthropogenic mortality. Whatever the issue (management of whaling, population status, whale watching, pollution, climate change, ecosystem modelling, ship strikes, bycatch, the impact of sound...), co-operation with other organisations such as ACCOBAMS, ASCOBANS, CCAMLR, CMS, FAO, IMO, IUCN and NAMMCO have been important in furthering the SC’s work.

Away from the science, a range of measures were taken to assist Contracting Governments participate in the Commission’s work. In 2000, a number of countries had significant arrears of financial contributions meaning that they could not participate in the organisation. A repayment mechanism was agreed (2002) that facilitated their return to full participation. Other changes were made to minimise the likelihood of Contracting Governments falling seriously into arrears and to limit the extent of the financial burden if they did so. A fairer mechanism to assess financial contributions was also agreed (2002) which reduced substantially the contributions of less-developed countries. And to reflect the increasing membership, French and Spanish were introduced as Working Languages in addition to English (2006). Changes were also made regarding access and participation by NGOs. These included allowing national as well as international NGOs to gain accreditation (2007), and finally introducing speaking rights, albeit in a limited way (2008).

Personally, one of the most challenging, intensive but rewarding experiences during my time as Secretary was the work on the ‘Future of IWC’. Established at IWC59 in 2007 and taking place over a three-year period, the work was designed to address the main issues faced by the Commission given inter alia the impasse reached on the Revised Management Scheme and the number of issues for which polarisation agadirrather than consensus was the norm. The main product ‘A Proposed Consensus Decision to Improve the Conservation of Whales’ was discussed extensively at IWC62 in 2010. While the Commission was unable to reach a consensus agreement on the measures proposed, the process had served to increase dramatically the level of trust and understanding among members.

Whereas my early Annual Meetings were marked by lots (and I mean lots) of voting, at my later meetings more focus was given to reaching consensus decisions and the atmosphere was much improved.  And finally, I would like to acknowledge the hard work and support of the staff of the Secretariat during my 10 years at IWC. We shared ups and downs but had a lot of laughs along the way."

Simon Brockington: 2010 - 2017

iwc65 top table opening ceremony 2 2“In common with other Executive Secretaries of the Commission, my time at the IWC was a period of rapid change.  Perhaps the single most important development was the increased emphasis on collaboration.  At a global level, in 2016 the IWC joined the Biodiversity Liaison Group, a gathering of intergovernmental organisations whose mandate included conservation.  At a regional level, the IWC worked with IUCN to facilitate a Memorandum of Cooperation between the range states of western North Pacific gray whales, first signed at the IWC Commission meeting in 2014.  And at local level, a relationship was built with the Cambridge Conservation Forum which is based just a few miles from IWC Headquarters at the Red House.

FEZ 3779 2Another initiative endorsed during my tenure, and which embodies the IWC’s drive to collaborate at all levels and across different disciplines was the IWC’s Global Whale Entanglement Response Network.  This initiative brought together entanglement experts from around the world.  They developed best practice guidance and a workshop format, teaching safe and effective entanglement response.  The Network held its first workshop in 2012.  Since then training has been delivered to people from over 30 countries, representing fishing communities, whale watching operations, national navies and coastguard services as well as governments and conservation organisations.  This initiative epitomises collaboration at the IWC and I was privileged to share in its development.”


Rebecca Lent: 2018 - present 

ASWWG Apr 18 JCGeorge 2"The first four years of my tenure at the IWC could be characterized as a time of change and adaptation for the Commission and for the Secretariat. The Report of the Independent Review Panel was the first major milestone in the IWC Governance Review. Released in early 2018, this report launched a governance work programme whose efforts continue to this day.

Whilst there was much debate over the Review Panel Report, it was a starting point for a complete review of the way we conduct our business and what changes might be beneficial to achieving our mission. This work programme has held several workshops and produced several rounds of papers for review by the entire Commission. Its recommendations are expected to be presented at
IWC68 for the Commission to debate and consider.

The Secretariat has also undergone a lot of change over the last few years, including a review of our structure and the IT systems on which we all increasingly rely.  There have been quite a few changes in staff including  retirements of long-standing members of the Secretariat. I’m very pleased to see new members of the team thriving in their positions, as well as bringing greater diversity and an increased ability to communicate in the three official languages of the Commission, which has become a priority as part of the Commission’s efforts to support broader engagement and participation, particularly focused on governments of limited means.  

Of course, the greatest change and adaptation has been the global Covid-19 pandemic, something nobody could have predicted in its scope and length. As with everyone, it presented incredible challenges for us in carrying out our mission and at a personal level with our families. The Secretariat worked with our leadership at the Commission and its subsidiary bodies to design the first-ever virtual meetings of the Scientific and Conservation Committees, several workshops, and even the Commission itself.

exec sec name plate picWhilst a true challenge particularly for topics that require face-to-face discussion, the benefits of virtual meetings surprised many of us. Participation was possible from a much wider range of countries around the world. The introduction of on-line review and editing of documents will likely become a permanent approach to much of our Committee work.

As we commemorate 75 years of the IWC, we also look forward to the next milestone and fully anticipate more change and adaptation in the years to come and for the Executive Secretaries of the future!"