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April 20, 2010

Whaling Moratorium Under Threat

A long time coming. A long time keeping. Can we save it?

Humane Society International


by Patti Forkan

The moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) on July 23rd 1982. It gave whaling nations until 1986 to phase out of their whaling activities. This was a momentous victory and is rightly heralded as one of the most important environmental successes ever. Despite the concerted efforts by Japan, Norway, and Iceland to attack and undermine its operation, the moratorium has survived, and so have hundreds of thousands of whales. For their sake, and our own, it must be preserved.

The history of "save the whales"

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established after WWII to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry. Instead, whaling nations rampaged through the last remaining remnants of whale populations. There was no regard for quotas. Some years no quotas were even set. Warnings from their own scientists were ignored and tens of thousands of whales died annually. Uncontrolled whaling in the Antarctic from 1959 to 1962 resulted in a staggering 110,563 fin whales being killed. Blue whale populations had already been destroyed.

The global movement to save whales began just after the first Earth Day in 1970, as we learned that whales and many other marine creatures were systematically being wiped out. By 1972, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation to protect them, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The same year, in Stockholm, the UN held its first meeting devoted to the environment and passed a nearly unanimous resolution calling for a 10 year moratorium on whaling. Saving whales quickly became the rallying cry and icon for the event. At demonstrations, speakers declared, "If you can’t save whales, what can you save?" The 10 year moratorium became the organizing principle for all that followed.

In 1973, at my first IWC meeting, there was little we observers could do to influence the continuing approval of massive quotas (more than 40,000 that year). The Japanese and Soviet whalers were demanding more and more of the relatively small minke whales (compared to their larger, now almost-extinct brethren). The “business model” in use was to take as many whales as fast as possible and make as much money as possible and when the stock collapsed, move on to smaller whales. By the time we got there, the minke was under attack. It had been ignored for decades because it wasn’t as cost-effective to kill and process them as the larger whales.

Gathering momentum; achieving success

By 1974, the "save the whales" movement included virtually all of the major animal welfare and environmental organizations in the United States, and they all agreed on the goal of a 10 year moratorium on whaling. I announced our boycott of Japanese and Soviet goods at the 1974 IWC meeting. The U.S. government at that time was leading the charge on behalf of the moratorium and began to whittle away at the quotas.

Over the 10 years from 1972 until 1982, we successfully reduced the quotas to 20,000 and then to 10,000. It took enormous patience, perseverance and unrelenting political pressure to finally achieve the moratorium. Best of all, it was an indefinite moratorium and did not automatically expire. In the 25 years since that great success, the IWC meetings have been contentious, at times ugly, but the moratorium has held, and whales and humans are the better for it.

Moratorium at risk

Why is the USA now trying to undo this hard-won victory?

First, let me say that when we broke open the champagne to celebrate the passage of the moratorium, none of us expected to still be fighting whaling in 2010. We all assumed that the dying industry would be long-gone by now. Instead, under the rubric of culture, and ongoing greed mixed with nationalism, it continues to this day. The pro-whaling and anti-whaling governments have worked over the years since the moratorium passed to win more countries to their respective side and then try to outvote each other. Japan has cynically used the appeal of foreign aid to woo support. When I first attended, there were 15 nations in the IWC. Today, it has ballooned to 88. It has reached a point where each side can block the other and nothing happens. But that isn’t necessarily bad for protecting whales. Ironically, if the moratorium had not passed, I believe there would be no commercially viable whale stocks left today. We rescued the minke whales in the nick of time. Blue whales are still a tiny remnant of their original population. We won a much-needed respite for most stocks.

Those of us in the “save the whales” camp want the IWC to move on to become a modern treaty, looking at topics like climate change and its impacts on whales. The whalers, however, want nothing to do with that and say the IWC can only set quotas for whalers. However, during this time we have certainly made progress for the whales. The quotas self-issued by Japan. Iceland and Norway are small compared to pre-moratorium quotas. The moratorium is the only thing holding down those numbers. It has also prevented other nations from starting up again.

Proposed deal potentially catastrophic

A number of governments are weary of this standoff, and a new diplomatic effort has been in play for a few years now. The latest version of this deal was written in secret, and it’s an appeasement approach. There is no evidence whatsoever that the whalers are really giving anything up. In fact the evidence is quite the contrary. It is a deal to end the standoff, not a deal to end whaling. And it is a deal that gives whalers what they want… legitimate whaling. The deal gives nothing to whales.

If the moratorium is suspended as this potential deal allows, whaling will run rampant until the last whale is harpooned. We cannot allow the Obama administration to continue to spearhead this effort for a new deal for whalers. So what if the three whaling nations are still whaling? They will still be whaling under this proposed deal, only with the blessings of the IWC and not as rogue states. They will still be whaling on populations of whales that are under increasing environmental stresses. They will still be whaling in a sanctuary. They will still be whaling without any science to back up the quotas. They will still be whaling 10 years from now under the deal. Shame on the Obama administration for even considering such a deal with three outlaw whaling nations. Shame on them for giving up and giving in when standing up and being counted is what the whales need. We can do better. We have to do better.

If we can’t save the whales, what can we save, after all?

Patricia Forkan was formerly president of HSI and now serves as senior envoy to the Obama Administration for The Humane Society of the United States.

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