Important Environmental Organizatons and the Obama Administration Are not Standing Up for the Whales
By Sara Wan, California Coastal Commissioner
Mark J. Palmer, Associate Director, International Marine Mammal Project, Earth Island Institute
The United States has let down the whales, with the help of three groups in the environmental community who really ought to have known better: Pew Charitable Trust, Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund (WWF). For almost forty years, the United States had been an international champion of protecting whales and banning commercial whaling. The US in particular was a strong supporter of the moratorium on commercial whaling, approved by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1982 for the 1986-87 whaling season.
That all changed with the administration of President George W. Bush, whose IWC delegation three years ago proposed closed-door negotiations with Japan and other whaling nations to address the continued problem of ongoing whaling despite the moratorium. In other words, a dirty deal was in the works.
Norway and Iceland had both lodged formal objections to the moratorium, which under the IWC Convention provisions allows them to ignore the restrictions and continue whaling. Japan has been even more creative, establishing a massive “scientific research” organization, taxpayer-subsidized, that slaughters more than 1,000 whales annually in Antarctic waters and many more in the North Pacific Ocean. The IWC Convention leaves the issuance of scientific permits up to member governments, never envisaging that fraudulent whaling would be continued even on endangered whale species in the name of “science.” The IWC, like many treaty bodies, has no enforcement powers.
The US Bush-led negotiations with Japan were aimed at getting Japan off the hook for its continued whaling activity. Some speculate that the US sought to give Japan the chance to legally kill whales in exchange for Japan’s approval for an unpopular US airbase in Okinawa. The US is also at the mercy of Japan’s bloc of IWC voting nations for a quota of bowhead whales killed annually by the Alaskan Inuit for subsistence purposes (e.g. the meat is not sold for commercial purposes, but used and traded by the local community in traditional ways). Japan and its client countries have in fact blocked the bowhead quota in the past. The deal proposed would have included locking in the US bowhead quota.
Environmental organizations opposed these negotiations seeking to end the moratorium on commercial whaling. But with the US and Japan leading the effort, there was deep concern that a “compromise” would come out that would attract enough votes to allow the legal slaughter of whales for ten years (or more). To our collective consternation, the Obama Administration, led by its new US IWC Commissioner Monica Medina, enthusiastically embraced the negotiations with Japan to allow commercial whaling.
Japan has been under more pressure to change its ways than at any time in the past twenty years. Organizations like Earth Island Institute, the Environmental Investigation Agency, and Humane Society International have been successful in getting whale and dolphin meat banned from markets in Japan and in publicizing Japan’s illegal whaling program, most notably in the Academy-Award-winning documentary, The Cove, which opened in Japanese movie theaters last July 3rd. Now was not the time to give Japan a break by cutting a deal to legalize their whaling.
On Earth Day (April 22, 2010) of all days, the IWC’s Chairman and Vice Chairman announced a draft agreement that would have reduced Japan’s Antarctic kill quota from 900 minke whales to 500 whales annually, in exchange for legalizing the whaling of Iceland and Norway in the North Atlantic and of Japan in Japan’s coastal waters.
Environmentalists uniformly opposed this compromise, and full-page ads in newspapers and online alerts targeted the Obama Administration that had negotiated the draft Chairs’ deal in the first place. More than 140 marine scientists signed a statement opposed to a return to commercial whaling. The pressure worked, and in May Monica Medina officially announced the Obama Administration’s opposition to the Chairs’ compromise in Congressional hearings.
“The United States continues to support the moratorium on commercial whaling and will continue our efforts to end lethal scientific research whaling,“ Medina claimed. “Our goal is to conserve whales.”
But that promise did not last very long.
What is hard to understand is what happened next. Three organizations, which had opposed the Chairs’ compromise, joined with Medina in announcing a new compromise, one that would open up commercial whaling once again while shutting down Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic, a better deal for whales in the Antarctic but dreadful for whales in other oceans. Newspaper headlines around the world announced that Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, and the Pew Charitable Trusts endorsed the new compromise allowing commercial whaling and were working with Medina to negotiate it in continued closed-door meetings at the IWC annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco, held June 22-25.
The U.S. wasn’t working to protect the whales; it was working to appease mostly Japan, but Iceland and Norway as well, which would also have been beneficiaries. The US, Greenpeace, Pew and WWF supported allowing some commercial whaling in exchange for Japan agreeing to stay out of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. What kind of a deal for the whales is that? A bad one from start to finish.
The deal would have legalized the renewal of commercial whaling and all that implies, including making it impossible for Australia to sue Japan in the world court (Australia filed its lawsuit just before the Agadir IWC meeting). It would have allowed Iceland to join the European Union without causing them to cease their whaling operations, opening up the door for nations like Korea who also want to be allowed to whale, and making it next to impossible to determine which whale killing was done through legal means versus illegal means. It would also be a reward for the bad, illegal behavior of Japan, Iceland and Norway who have, for decades, been ignoring the moratorium to pursue their perverse war on whales. It was appeasement of the worst kind.
Fortunately, the proposal fell apart. Japan would not commit to ending whaling in Antarctica – there are too many whales there for them to give it up. Furthermore (unlike the United States), Australia, the European Union, and several South American nations opposed ending the moratorium that so many conservationists had fought so hard for. However, those same organizations – Pew, WWF and Greenpeace – are now touting the failure of the proposal at the IWC as a victory that the Obama Administration should be given credit for. For those of us who worked hard to defeat the proposal that the US supported, to congratulate the Administration for a victory for whales they tried to defeat at the IWC is insulting at best.
Because of Greenpeace, Pew, WWF and Medina, the proposal wasn’t voted down; it was essentially tabled until next year, and nothing was done to improve the current situation. Greenpeace in particular, known for their anti-whaling efforts over the years, joined the compromise for no known reason and are now reportedly facing the understandable wrath of their membership.
At the very end, with no scientific justification, the IWC voted to allow Greenland to kill nine humpback whales per year, with the active support of the US. This proposal was allowed, without scientific review of their population status, presumably for “subsistence” purposes. We know however, that much of the so-called “subsistence” whaling in Greenland is not for those purposes, and much of the whale meat ends up for sale in illegal markets.
A good deal for the whales? We think not – at least nine more whales will be slaughtered annually for no good reason. The US IWC delegation embarrassed itself on the world stage by bungling three years of negotiations for a deal even the whaling countries did not want.
Perhaps indicative of what appears to be the contempt that Commissioner Medina holds for environmental organizations, after these organizations waited ten hours to be finally given a chance to speak during the IWC meeting, Medina walked out of the meeting and failed to even give them the courtesy of listening to them. For a public official to go to a public meeting and then refuse to even hear what the public has to say is an offense that is without justification. It shows what the Administration thinks of those of us who have dedicated our lives to protecting these magnificent animals, many of us for little or no pay.
Adding insult to injury, it was revealed before the IWC meeting by the London Sunday Times that Japan had engaged for years in blatant bribery and corruption of other IWC delegates, including cash payments, prostitutes, hotel bills and airline tickets to attend meetings. The IWC’s Chair in Agadir, Anthony Liverpool, was revealed to have received his airline flight and hotel expenses in Morocco from Japan’s rogue Fisheries Agency. Do you think the US delegation raised this issue during the five days of the IWC meeting? Or Greenpeace? Or WWF? They specifically avoided any discussion of corruption because that would have jeopardized getting a deal with Japan to gut whale protections and allow legal commercial whaling.
For anyone to say that the US was working to save whales this year is an affront to one’s intelligence and dangerous indeed, since next year the US will be back, again claiming that allowing the resumption of commercial whaling is good for the whales while getting “credit” for protecting them.
Japan, Iceland and Norway should instead join the rest of the world in protecting the world’s whales, if they are to be a part of an international community that respects democratic decision-making and husbanding of resources for the greater good. Even in crass economic terms, whales are worth more alive than dead as a result of a booming international whale-watching industry. There can be no price put on the joy they bring to millions of people.
But there are higher reasons, too. Whales possess the biggest brains on Earth. They are sentient beings that feel pain, experience fear, and have advanced communications skills. They pose no harm to humans, but humans have hurt them by the tens of thousands through decades of bloodshed. The methods of killing whales both large and small are barbaric. Dolphins are the only known wild animals to save the lives of humans, yet we feel no obligation to them.
Such altruism speaks to a higher purpose – one that the United States, with the help of Greenpeace, Pew, and the World Wildlife Fund, have crassly violated in support of a politically expedient “deal”. Their deal failed. They should not be given another chance to give away the world’s whales to three nations far outside the mainstream of international moral, environmental and legal norms.
(A shorter version of this article appeared previously on the Huffington Post.)