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Obama vs. Whales

by Andrew Christie

Sixty-four years ago, founded on a global acknowledgment of the obvious - that the efficiencies of industrial whaling were about to shove every species of great whale over the cliff of extinction in short order - the International Whaling Commission came into being and set about its assigned task: find a way to let the nations of the world keep prospering from the killing of whales without killing so many of them that they ran out of whales.

They failed.

From the end of World War II until the dawn of Reagan's second term, they tried everything. Area closures. Strict quotas. On-board observers. Bans on hunting the most endangered species. But as long as commercial whaling was legal and lucrative, cheating was a matter of course. The Soviets in particular became masters of the art, keeping two sets of books, turning on steam pipes designed to veil the decks of their factory ships and obscure the view of wholly illegal slaughtered blue whales and humpbacks whenever prying eyes drew near. The whalers had no burning desire to see who could do the best job of following the rules. They followed an imperative above IWC regulations: get as much as you can, as fast as you can, and don't get caught. (Twenty years after the fact, the discovery of the staggering scale of the Soviets' cheating nullified the data scientists had been using to estimate the populations of virtually every species of great whale.)

And the Russians were not alone. Per Dr. Sidney Holt, 30-year veteran of the IWC's Scientific Committee, the falsification of data by Japanese whalers also "occurred in the period when international (IWC) observers were assigned to the whaling platforms and...the devices adopted to defy timely detection were similar: species wrongly identified; two or more small whales counted as one large one; inspectors and observers lured away from their posts."

After forty years of stumbling toward disaster, with inevitable extinctions drawing near and world opinion growing loud in their ears, the IWC had no choice but to enact a global moratorium on commercial whaling, which went into effect in 1986. It was the greatest single victory in the history of the environmental movement.

It wasn't perfect. Japan, Norway and Iceland immediately starting wiggling through loopholes in the international convention. But the rush to extinction slowed, and as a result, we have been able to continue to share the planet with complex, sentient, intelligent beings. We have found that a close encounter with these beings triggers emotions in us for which there are no words. We have found that these beings, upon being shot with a grenade-tipped harpoon, can take up to an hour to die.

The Obama administration is now preparing to endorse lifting that moratorium and push for a return to legalized commercial whaling when the IWC meets in June.

The moratorium was supposed to be kept in place at least until studies determined that populations had recovered from two centuries of ruthless exploitation. They haven't, and the proposal to re-start commercial whaling discards that idea. Instead, a "compromise" has been proposed. Consensus is being sought. The new, improved commercial whaling will be strictly controlled. There will be quotas. Strict record-keeping. On-board observers. They say they really mean it this time.

Above all, it will preserve the peace at the perpetually rancorous IWC, where Japan, Norway, and Iceland always threaten to walk out and start killing all the whales they want whenever any conservation measure is proposed, or, in the present instance, if they don't get this deal. They say they really mean it this time.

Two years ago, Obama said "Allowing Japan to continue commercial whaling is unacceptable." One might think that our President had lately learned a few things about trying to appease an angry, reactionary minority whose interests are implacably opposed to yours, and that there are good alternatives to appeasement. One might choose to enforce international conservation agreements. The Packwood-Magnuson and Pelly Amendments to U.S. fishery laws provide for bans on the import of fishery products and the closure of U.S. waters to the fishing fleets of nations that subvert international marine conservation goals.

That apparently has not occurred to this administration, but a teachable moment is upon them. More than 40 environmental and animal welfare organizations worldwide are opposing this deal. On May 23, communities all along the length of California's coastline will turn out to protest the proposed deadly IWC compromise, including the axe that it drops on the California gray whale (proposed quota: 1,400 killed over the next ten years despite evidence of a population in decline). Petitions will be available at each location and will be delivered to the White House. Go to www.wanconservancy.org/whales for the list of sites.

A compromise deal that forces the minority view of whales-as-commodity upon the majority of the world's people is a compromise that drags our ethical sense back to the 19th century at the point of a harpoon. We have one chance to turn back the worst deal to come along in many years -- and, for the whales, it is very likely the last chance.

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