Blinkered by Bowheads

Pro-whalers purport that whales can sustain commercial hunting, but many populations have not recovered to sustain hunting. Inherently Inhumane

Pro-whalers purport that whales can sustain commercial hunting, but many populations have not recovered to sustain hunting. All whales still face overwhelming odds for survival because of other threats from by-catch, toxic pollutants, climate change, anthropogenic noise, habitat destruction, over-fishing of prey species and ship strikes. Even if whale populations were sufficiently robust such that a resumption of commercial whaling could occur, the practice of whaling is inherently cruel. The most advanced methods can neither kill the animals instantaneously nor render them irreversibly insensitive to pain prior to death. The current criteria used to measure time to death is questionable, since the same weaponry is used on both small and large whales, and the whalers themselves are charged with collecting welfare data.

As the host and chair of the May 2007 International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, the United States has the task of accommodating thousands of delegates and support staff, non-governmental organizations, reporters, security personnel and curious onlookers. The meeting's venue is no coincidence. The United States has been preparing for this year's meeting since the 2002 IWC meeting in Shimonoseki, Japan, when its request for a 5-year quota of bowhead whales for Alaskan Natives was blocked. Only later did the quota achieve final approval through a specially convened meeting. That precious quota expires next summer, so a new one will be requested this May. Not wanting a repeat of Shimonoseki, the sole focus of the Anchorage meeting for the United States is obtaining the bowhead whale quota, to the exclusion of all the many other decisive IWC issues.

The United States has treaded water over the course of the last four IWC meetings. Meanwhile, the pro-whaling nations have continued to push for a resumption of commercial whaling through initiatives such as recruiting countries to join the IWC and providing fisheries aid to make them vote in favor of a pro-whaling agenda. The United States is so preoccupied by its own mission that it is ignoring the much bigger issues facing the IWC, such as the shifting balance of power due to Japan's accelerated IWC recruitment drive, the growing call of cultural imperialism by some of the recruited nations, the passage of a pro-whaling declaration for the first time in decades at last year's meeting, and the simple majority the pro-whalers attained—if only by a single vote.

Japan and other pro-whaling nations began a new initiative to undermine the IWC's moratorium by convening a so-called "normalization" meeting in February 2007, aiming to restore an emphasis on regulating whaling. The United States at one point actually planned to attend, but then correctly chose to not participate. While this decision was welcome, the United States is glossing over the biggest potential threats to the moratorium: the latest Japanese proposal for a resumption of its small-type coastal whaling, coupled with its proposal for status reviews of the great whales listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

At the Anchorage meeting, Japan intends to propose that the IWC vote in favor of a resumption of its small-type coastal whaling, whereby small motorized fishing vessels hunt small cetaceans in nearshore waters. Japan has sought IWC permission for its coastal whaling for two decades, claiming that whalers in four towns have suffered economic hardship and a loss of culture because of the moratorium on commercial whaling. In fact, until Japan started its "research whaling" and flooded the market with whale meat, these coastal communities actually benefited from the moratorium as they continued to hunt small cetaceans, selling the fresh meat with little competition.

The practice of hunting small cetaceans is still conducted in Japanese towns such as Taiji, where the notorious dolphin drive hunts take place—primarily to sustain a growing demand for live dolphins for aquaria in recent years—as well as in other locations where the Institution for Cetacean Research also issues licenses for participation in Japan's North Pacific "research whaling" of great whale species. The fear of pollutant contamination in coastal species causes much of the meat to be unsafe, with large quantities being processed into pet food or fertilizer. At the special 2002 IWC meeting at which the bowhead quota was passed, the United States voted in favor of a Japanese small-type coastal whaling proposal for the first time, presumably in a deal with Japan to secure the bowhead quota. This year, Japan will massage its request to be more palatable by removing any hint of commerciality and by tweaking the cultural necessity angle.

The small-type coastal whaling proposal will, if approved, necessitate a partial lifting of the commercial whaling moratorium, unless Japan is able to convince the IWC that its whalers" needs are subsistence, similar to those of Alaskan whalers. AWI Quarterly readers may recall that the United States was in 1997 successful in convincing the IWC that the Makah Tribe of Washington State—which has no subsistence need and had not whaled in over 70 years—deserved a gray whale quota. Domestic litigation has prevented the Makah from whaling, except for the 1999 killing of a single whale who was essentially left to rot on the shore. The United States again plans to submit a joint proposal with Russia for a quota of gray whales at the Anchorage meeting, which will of course play directly into the hands of the Japanese, who may use this request to justify their own proposal.

If Japan prevails at the IWC meeting, then not only will the moratorium be compromised, but pro-whaling countries will have succeeded in paving the way toward a resumption of international trade in whale meat. All of the great whales are currently listed in CITES Appendix I, which bans international trade in their parts and products. The Appendix I listing is largely due to the IWC moratorium, and CITES member countries have also adopted a resolution that gives deference to the IWC over the management of whales. The next CITES meeting takes place in Holland shortly after the IWC meeting, and Japan intends to introduce a proposal for the status review of all whales to determine whether their Appendix I designation is warranted. Though resource intensive and unnecessary, with even a partial lifting of the moratorium, Japan's CITES proposal will be difficult to oppose.

The pro-whaling bloc will assuredly attempt to thwart the bowhead quota request again in Anchorage, and the United States, hobbled by its angst over this single issue, has not expended the effort or resources to prepare its opposition to this careful assault. Contrary to the wishes of the American people, the United States has lost its will to fight the whaling war and has concentrated only on the bowhead battle. It is clearly disengaged from this high-stakes game, in which Alaskan Natives have become unwitting pawns. The United States has the tools to outmaneuver the whalers, namely through domestic trade sanctions and strong political and diplomatic pressure, yet it chooses not to take action. The United States must acknowledge that being blinkered by this single issue while ignoring the bigger picture is equal to watching on as the death-knell for the whales—bowheads included—is being sounded.