June 26, 2010

Whale in the Rainbow

In the midst of the oil spill, the last thing I'd expect from President Obama is full-throated support to lift the ban on commercial whaling. Yet, if our press is to believed, that's precisely what he is doing. Only, he's not. Not even a little bit.

Had there been an actual reversal, it would have devastated any support he could get from even the most lukewarm environmentalists. Whales are much-beloved in this country and there is absolutely nothing to be gained from supporting the commercial interests of whalers over preservation of endangered species.

A ban isn't a ban if countries ignore it

Despite a 25-year ban on commercial whaling, over 2,000 whales are killed each year by commercial whalers, principally in Iceland, Japan, and Norway. The reason is pretty simple: Iceland, Japan and Norway have ignored the ban since the day it was imposed. As a result, they have killed, continue to kill, and intend to keep on killing whales.

For these countries, the issue centers around claiming and clinging to the right to whale more than the actual act of whaling.


"The Icelandic republic was only founded in 1944 - the country had been under Danish rule - and, in the Icelandic mind, the battle for independence is still going on. Whaling doesn't matter very much, culturally or economically, to anyone in Iceland. But behind this decision is a real fear that if we allow ourselves to be dictated to about whaling, then the world will start telling us what we can and cannot fish. This is what is really important. The real issue is fishing, and safeguarding our fishing grounds."

What does President Obama have to do with it?

The federation of countries that imposed the ban (IWF) all those years ago is controlled by countries with little interest in whaling, but political interests in creating alliances with more powerful countries.

The proposal before the IWC this week, sponsored by the US, is to allow a 10-year period of open commercial whaling, in return for Japan's agreement to reduce its take in the Southern Ocean, with a view to eventual cessation. But Japan remains intransigent, refusing to accept this compromise. They are in a position of strength – not least because they have been trading overseas aid in return for votes from IWC-registered delegates with little or no interest in whaling.

Representatives from the Marshall Islands, Cambodia and even the landlocked Laos and Mongolia – are wandering the corridors, their support bought by Japan. As a result, Japan is close to gaining control of the organisation, and insiders report that the weekend's scientific talks have come close to total collapse. [read more]

To restate that a little more clearly, Japan is shopping aid to countries in exchange for their agreement to block any agreement to limit whaling activities. What the President is trying to do is offer a limited right to whale with a phaseout of whaling altogether in an effort to bring them into the global agreement to end it altogether.

In other words, contrary to what our press is wont to report in breathless 30-point headlines, the President is trying to stop whaling, not green-light unlimited whale mayhem.

As further evidence of this, Greenpeace has provisionally agreed to the compromise as a way to end whaling altogether. This is because the Obama proposal drops the number of whales killed by commercial whalers from 2,000 per year to a cumulative total of less than 1,000.

The real story is how we're not told the real story

Here are some sample headlines from conservative and liberal sources:

Change.org: Will Obama Sell Out Whales on Earth Day?
Michelle Malkin: Obama Breaks a Whale of a Campaign Promise
CommonDreams.org Obama vs. Whales
Huffington Post: Pro-Whaling Proposal Fails, But Whales Aren't Safe Yet

About the only truly balanced article I could find from a mainstream source is from Al-Jazeera.

Pragmatism over idealism, once again

The reason this has hit such a sour note is because it plays the ideal against the practical, making political hay but also ignoring the fact not lifting the ban will kill more whales than it saves. Here's how it goes:

  • If the ban were working, no whales would be killed.
  • Japan, Iceland and Norway are killing whales; therefore, the ban is not working.
  • Japan's proxies nearly control the IWF and have the power to lift the ban entirely worldwide, which would enable Japan in particular to expand whaling activities into other areas.
  • Brokering a deal for limited whaling by these countries for a limited amount of time with an eye to a complete phaseout over a ten year period spares more whales than are spared right now.
  • Therefore, lifting the ban and imposing stringent limits is actually more whale-friendly than doing nothing

The arguments that Obama is anti-whale, anti-environment are nonsense. They're predicated on a false premise; that is, that the current international ban is working. It's not.

Idealists, meet reality.

In a move that took many people by surprise, three of the world's largest international non-government groups, Greenpeace, WWF and the Pew Environment Group, today said they were prepared to see commercial whaling resumed if six conditions were met.

In a joint statement they demanded: an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean; an end to trade in whale meat and products; the elimination of unilaterally decided whaling quotas; an end to hunts of endangered whale species; putting science at the centre of IWC decisions and prevention of objections or reservations by IWC members if the moratorium is lifted.

So far, they haven't been able to come to an agreement. Japan comes out with a better deal by continuing to ignore the existing ban. For another year, at least, that will be the case.

Here's the question: Was it worth standing for the ideal -- zero tolerance for commercial whaling -- and losing another 2,000 or so to Japanese dinner tables, or would support for a compromise with firm commitments from the countries ignoring the ban now have been a better idea?

We've got a year to figure it out, but the lack of straight talk from conservatives and liberals alike did not save any whales.

(That picture at the top is mine, taken 3 years ago from about 20 feet away in a Zodiac. They're magnificent, beautiful amazing creatures. I want them ALL to live too. But if I'm given a choice between losing 2,000 and losing 200, I'll take the latter.)

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