Here's a look at the politics and the realities behind the ban on commercial whaling
-- By Jackie Bennion
By the early 20th century, many species of whales had been hunted to dangerously low numbers, particularly in waters around the Arctic and Antarctic. In response to the threat and to better manage the whaling industry, The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created in 1946 to help govern commercial whaling and “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks.” While some whaling stocks were in decline, to a greater extent so was the industry as whaling byproducts were less in demand. Whale oil, for instance, was once a staple source of fuel in many communities.
The Rise of the Environmental Movement
With the arrival of a fledging environmental movement in the1950s and 1960s, the American public became more aware of ocean ecology, and many early efforts were channeled toward protecting the whale. Revered for its size and intelligence and often mythologized in classic literature like Moby Dick and movies like Whale Rider, the whale developed iconic status in the West.
As American environmentalists became more organized and politically savvy in the 1970s, two landmark environmental laws were passed under President Richard Nixon: The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. While the ESA set out to protect dwindling species and their habitats, the MMPA took a position unique in American law.
The MMPA was unequivocal in its protective measures for marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, stating that even if species were not threatened or endangered, it would be illegal to “harass, hunt, capture or kill” them. The law banned US citizens from “taking” marine mammals from both U.S. and international waters, and banned the import of marine mammal products into the country. The new law placed a special and higher value on marine mammals, providing them with favored legal protection beyond any other creature in the ecosystem. The law also marked a major turning point in American attitudes toward marine mammals.
The Political Discourse
In Western industrialized countries, the shift in attitudes over whaling came in direct conflict with the values of countries that had longstanding cultural ties to the tradition or who had relied on whaling as a primary source of economic development. While anti-whaling nations came to view the whale as a special category of wildlife, pro-whaling nations continued to view it as a resource to be used and managed, like many other animals in the ecosystem.
By the 1980s, groups such as Greenpeace and Save the Whale had powerful activists using the gruesome imagery often associated with commercial whaling to amplify their message. By now, Americans were well versed on the public anti-whaling debate and most were in favor of a complete ban. Powerful special interest groups began lobbying the U.S. Congress to exert its influence on the IWC, and in1986, an international moratorium on commercial whale hunting began.
When the IWC was founded in the 1940s with the purpose of providing international management of whale stocks for the whaling industry, there were 15 charter members, all of them whaling countries. Today, the IWC has more than 70 member countries, eight of them land-locked nations with little direct interest in the fate of whales but with a tactical vote that allows them to gain economic leverage on other issues. Despite the fact the moratorium has held for more than two decades, it is not a legally binding treaty; rather, it is a voluntary self-regulating body and member countries can opt out any time. Japan and Norway, both IWC members, are notable in that they have continued to hunt whales, often using a loophole in the IWC framework that allows certain hunting quotas under the label of scientific research.
In recent years, Japan, Norway, and Iceland, and other nations with strong commercial whaling traditions have argued that stocks of certain species have rebounded enough since the IWC began the suspension to again allow commercial whaling, albeit on a limited basis. Each year, members of the IWC meet to discuss the moratorium (the group has met annually since 1949), and the event has become increasingly consumed by political self-interests, as pro-whaling and anti-whaling nations duke it out for the 75 percent majority vote needed to keep the ban in place. When delegates met this May in Anchorage, Alaska, the moratorium was passed for another year.
Additional research: Serene Fang and Monica Lam
SOURCES: The International Whaling Commission (IWC); NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources; Savethewhales.org; The International Fund for Animal Welfare; Whales, Whaling and Ocean Ecosystems, Edited by James A. Estes, Douglas P. DeMaster, Daniel F. Doak, Terrie M. Williams, and Robert L. Brownell, Jr.