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Small cetaceans are the cetacean species not considered to be one of the ‘Great Whales.’ The IWC facilitates and funds a number of small cetacean research and conservation programmes but it does not regulate hunting of small cetaceans.


The 1946 Convention which established the IWC does not define a 'whale,' although a list of twelve species was annexed to the Convention. Some member governments believe that the IWC only has the the legal authority to regulate catches of these named ‘Great Whale’ species.  Other members believe that all cetaceans, including the smaller dolphins and porpoises, fall within IWC jurisdiction.  The IWC has never regulated small cetacean hunts, and agreement has not been reached on whether it should in the future.

Scientific Research and Conservation

Whilst the IWC does not regulate small cetacean hunts, it is engaged in a range of research and conservation programmes focused on small cetaceans.  In recognition of the expertise and global reach that exist within the IWC, the endangered status of some species and populations, and the need for international co-ordination, the Commission has established several programmes to understand and address the threats to endangered species and populations of small cetacean.

The Small Cetacean Voluntary Fund was established in 2009.  To date it has supported scientific research involving more than twenty countries and with some of the most at-risk marine mammal species in the world.  The fund is an excellent example of how much can be achieved with a small sum of money and a concerted, collaborative effort.

In 2015, the Small Cetacean Task Team initiative was launched.  Task Teams are designed to instigate urgent action when a significant and swift decline has been observed in a small cetacean population or species.  So far, four task teams have formed, each working closely and flexibly with local experts on the ground.

The Franciscana dolphin was the focus of the first Task Team and subsequently became the first small cetacean species to be the subject of a Conservation Management Plan (CMP).  This is a longer-term, formal framework, bringing together national governments and other stakeholders. CMPs had previously existed only for large whale species.

Recently, work has also been undertaken to better understand the extent and impact of small-scale or opportunistic catches of dolphins and porpoises for food, bait, trade and traditional uses.  This includes a new workshop series aiming to build capacity among local groups to collect, share and analyse data which will help to establish a clearer picture of both the local and global situation.

Additional reading

In 2014, a Resolution was passed which established new and specific terms of reference to consolidate the Scientific Committee’s mandate on small cetaceans within its wider work programme.