Will the U.S. Renege On Support For Commercial Whaling Moratorium?

Earlier this week news broke that a small working group of the International Whaling Commission had put together a proposal that would allow commercial whaling for the first time since 1986, when the IWC imposed a moratorium on the slaughtering of whales for commercial purposes. The United States has traditionally been a supporter of the moratorium, and President Obama has been particularly firm in his opposition to commercial whaling. But it looks like that might have changed.

I have to say, I just can’t figure out why Obama would want to get involved in another environmental fight, given that his signature enviro cause — climate change — isn’t exactly going well for him. “Save the whales” has been a rallying cry for environmentalists for decades, so it’s no surprise that the proposal was met with swift opposition. Here at Greenpeace, we got over 30,000 signatures on a petition to Obama in just a few days.

But I digress. As for the proposal itself, it’s a stunning piece of cognitive dissonance. The premise is this: Let’s save the whales by reinstating commercial whaling. Of course, that’s not how the proposal’s writers would put it. They say that in exchange for lifting the moratorium on commercial whaling, whaling nations — which include Japan, Norway, and Iceland, all of whom claim whaling is too important to their culture to give up and are responsible for killing thousands of whales every year in defiance of the moratorium — must accept lower quotas.

These quotas, however, would not be dictated by scientists whose expertise would allow them to set sensible limits to yearly catches so as to protect whale populations. They would be set by good old political wrangling — setting the quotas just right so that enough countries will sign on. This is a recipe for disaster for the whales.

There are a number of other flaws in the proposal. Probably the biggest one, however, is that reinstating commercial whaling would legitimize all whaling. Japan has continued its whaling operations under the guise of “scientific research,” while Norway and Iceland just straight-out say they don’t accept the moratorium. Why on earth should we take them at their word when they say they’ll kill lower numbers of whales after the IWC has sanctioned the practice?

Adding insult to injury, the costs of regulating the commercial whaling sector would be passed on to all member nations of the IWC — meaning even those countries opposed to whaling would be forced to support whaling operations.

At an IWC meeting in Florida this week, the U.S.’s commissioner to the IWC, Monica Medina, told the Washington Post, that “the Obama administration has not decided whether to endorse the document.” That’s a far cry from the days when candidate Obama boldly declared that, “As president, I will ensure that the U.S. provides leadership in enforcing international wildlife protection agreements, including strengthening the international moratorium on commercial whaling. Allowing Japan to continue commercial whaling is unacceptable.”

So like I said, this whole thing just baffles me. Obama doesn’t need another reason for environmentalists to be attacking him. And a team of U.S. researchers just released a report showing that whales store a significant amount of carbon in their huge bodies. Of course, that carbon gets released when they’re killed. You see where I’m going with this: We could lower global emissions by putting a stop to whaling! The researchers estimate that the past century of whaling is responsible for more than 100 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

Not only would Obama be avoiding a fight he can’t afford by opposing this proposal, but he could credibly claim to be making headway on the climate issue. Seems like a no-brainer.

Australia has offered a proposal of its own to end whaling once and for all. We’ll see which wins out this June when the IWC next meets. We’ll also see whether President Obama is willing to end our country’s history of protecting whales, not to mention his own personal commitment to anti-whaling efforts.

Image © Bob Meyers/Greenpeace

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