Alarm sounded for whale conservation (commentary)

A proposal circulating among the 88 nations that comprise the International Whaling Commission would allow an official resumption of commercial whaling in many parts of the ocean. The International Fund for Animal Welfare is making an urgent appeal to the U.S. Government to save the whales.

By Patrick R. Ramage

As our Ship of State sails on through 2010, a massive issue surfaces: a dangerous new proposal to overturn the global ban on commercial whaling and legitimize this cruel, outmoded industry in the 21st century.

Few would expect whaling to be among the issues to flop onto the President’s desk, but it is perhaps one of the most fundamental and easiest to fix.

From sea to shining sea and across the political spectrum, Americans love whales. Five national surveys commissioned by my organization, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, over the past decade show overwhelming majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents want these magnificent creatures protected for future generations.

And voters of all species and subgroups, from rural, conservative GOP-types, to urban, liberal Democrats, and swing voters in between, want our government to take action to end resurgent commercial whaling by Japan, Iceland and Norway.

All the more stunning then to learn that U.S. government bureaucrats, together with fisheries agency representatives from a dozen other countries, have emerged from three years of closed-door meetings with a “compromise” proposal to reward Japan, Iceland and Norway with new, exclusive rights to continue killing whales for commercial purposes.

The plan, which will be voted on this June, is as unwise as it is un-American.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is an 88-nation body charged with the conservation of our planet’s great whales.

In 1986, following personal intervention by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the IWC declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, enshrining one of the 20th century’s most important conservation victories. Since that time the IWC has issued quotas only for Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling, such as that conducted responsibly by Alaska natives.


Traditional whale-hunting in Alaska

Photos by Emory Kristof, NGS

Yet more than 30,000 whales have been killed for commercial purposes since the ban. The Government of Japan, which circumvents the rules by claiming it kills whales for science, has increased its whaling in international waters five-fold and is now threatening to add the iconic humpback whale to its target list.


Humpback whales.

Art by Richard Ellis, NGS

Most of Japan’s annual slaughter is conducted in an international whale sanctuary around Antarctica.

Iceland and Norway, emboldened by ongoing negotiations to undo the whaling ban, have recently ramped up their whaling, conducted in open defiance of IWC rules.

Even without this assault, whales face more threats today than ever before in history. Marine pollution, destruction of critical habitats, entanglements in fishing gear, collisions with high speed vessels, ocean noise pollution and global warming pose real challenges to whale populations just beginning to recover from more than two centuries of commercial whaling.

If the situation in the water is bad for whales, the situation inside the Commission established to protect them is worse.

After years of U.S. drift and disinterest, conservation-minded countries now find themselves consistently outmanned by a 50-person strong Japanese delegation, Iceland, Norway and a steady stream of small island states and landlocked developing countries recruited to the IWC in recent years to vote in lockstep with Japan.

As a result, United States influence inside the IWC has waned while the Government of Japan has been far more focused, engaged and aggressive, inside and outside the IWC, in pursuit of its declared objectives, most recently outmaneuvering the U.S. to avoid international restrictions on the trade in endangered bluefin tuna via another international convention.

Faced with this challenge, the Obama Administration has apparently decided to sound a retreat. Four out of the last five closed-door meetings of the IWC working group preparing the draft plan to countries to allow new whaling by Japan, Iceland and Norway have been held on U.S. soil.

Inexplicably, the final plan to legitimize whaling will be circulated by the IWC on Earth Day, April 22. 

Inexplicably, the final plan to legitimize whaling will be circulated by the IWC on Earth Day, April 22.

This is not the American way.

Ours is a country proud of its whaling heritage; of “iron men in wooden boats” who set to sea and returned with oil to light the lamps of the western world. Our national migration from Yankee whaling to whale conservation leadership was a uniquely American journey.

From his very first words as President, Barack Obama committed his administration to transparency and embraced science. He inherited a long, bipartisan legacy of national and international leadership in whale conservation of which all Americans can be proud. Federal and state officials, scientists, fishermen, mariners, advocacy organizations and concerned citizens up and down our coasts are undertaking massive efforts to protect and ensure the survival of whales off our shores–often at significant expense and inconvenience.

For more than a decade now, the Governments of Japan, Iceland and Norway have worked harder to keep killing whales than our government has worked to conserve and protect them.

But it is not too late to turn the tide.

If the Obama Administration clearly signals it takes this issue seriously, engaging and encouraging these last three countries involved to end their commercial whaling, then “change we can believe in” can extend beyond our shores to the ultimate benefit of our planet’s great whales.

Mr. President, stop the sellout. Save the Whales!

Patrick Ramage is Director of the Global Whale Program for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • RARC

    Brave but misguided acts of aggression on the high seas, and bluster and bombast on the safe side of the shore will never stop the killing. This is no longer about the tragic slaughter of a thousand whales each year in the Southern Ocean. It has devolved into what the Japanese government sees as an imperialistic assault upon their culture. Sadly, until the good and decent people of Japan (and Iceland and Norway)demand that their government ends this brutal and barbaric practice, no amount of pleading, cajoling, or threatening by foreigners will stop the blood fest. Please visit my blog: http://whaleanddolphintalk.blogspot.com/

  • ddpalmer

    I would expect a representative of the IFAW to be more truthful in his writing.
    First off the IWC is not “charged with the conservation of our planet’s great whales.” The purpose is to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry. Sounds like their job is to control and regulate the continued hunting of whales.
    The international whale sanctuary was established in violation of the IWCs own regulations, but even if it is valid the Japanese objected to it as allowed by the IWC regulations Article V, so legally by the IWC regulations it doesn’t apply to them.
    Iceland and Norway are not whaling in open defiance of IWC rules. They both objected to the moratorium under IWC article V, so tehy are not bound by its restrictions. Japan also initially objected to the moratorium but the US blackmailed then to accept the moratorium or lose all fishing rights in US waters. After Japan agreed and signed the moratorium the US went ahead and pulled all their fishing rights in US waters.
    Yes, Japan has encouraged other countries that support their position to join the IWC. Just like the US and anti-whaling groups did in the late 70s-early 80s to get the moratorium passed. So it was an acceptable tactic for anti-whalers but now that the pro-whales are using it, it is somehow wrong. Looks hypocritical to me.
    The fact that 4 of the 5 meetings where held in the US doesn’t mean anything. The US, along with other countries on both sides, has been trying to come to some sort of agreement to save the IWC. I assume the US was chosen for the meetings due to ease of access or some other mundane reason. It is not an indication of the US position.

  • AguaSonic

    Whales have been singing in the ocean since before humans knew how to stand upright.
    At least two whales, Fins and Blues, were able, in pre-industrial, quiet oceans, to send their songs to the other side of the planet for /eons/ before a human could walk.
    This is not about ‘nations rights’, or whaling rights, or any other such nonsense.
    This is about respecting who /lives/ in the ocean. No human can do anything but visit that place.
    Kill without mercy, sure.
    Live there? Call it home? If your name is Moitessier, or Slocum, perhaps. The rest of us can only visit.
    And yet some people have the brass to talk about who has the right to kill some part of the single-digit percentages of what is left of the 20th century slaughters?
    If whales were Jewish we would be holding war-crimes tribunals.
    Where does it end? If not now, when? If we go to there are none left, I promise you, there will be nothing human left of us.

  • ddpalmer

    Cockroaches have been around since before whales learned to swim. Does that mean we can’t kill cockroaches?
    Humans have been harvesting food from the oceans for millions of years, in fact probably since before we could walk upright. And we have been harvesting resources from environments where we can’t live for centuries. Unless you want to go back to living under the conditions of the Middle Ages this argument doesn’t make much sense.
    Minke whales have never been extensively hunted. In fact they were almost ignored until the last 30 or 40 years. Their numbers are close to if not above the levels of the 17th and 18th Century due to less competition from the species that were decimated.
    The IWC’s job is to support and regulate the sustainable harvesting of whales. Their own science indicates that some species, the Minke in particular, can be sustainably harvested. Politics and lies have prevented them from doing their job despite the fact that the whaling nations have science on their side.

  • AguaSonic

    ddpalmer —
    You don’t get it. ‘Not extinct yet’ does not mean ‘resume program’.

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