U.S. Joins Anti-Whaling Effort

The head of a Baird's beaked whale lies on the floor of a slaughterhouse in Chiba, Japan. The nation is planning on expanding its whale hunt.
The head of a Baird's beaked whale lies on the floor of a slaughterhouse in Chiba, Japan. The nation is planning on expanding its whale hunt. (By Koichi Kamoshida -- Getty Images)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006

The United States and some of its closest allies are launching a concerted campaign to block a possible return to large-scale whaling and to reverse the gains made by pro-whaling forces in the international commission that regulates hunting of the massive creatures.

The political shift in the International Whaling Commission, which was on full display last week when the body narrowly backed a nonbinding resolution in favor of commercial whaling, has alarmed environmentalists and senior officials in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. In interviews last week, several said they feel a duty to mount an organized effort to ensure that the 20-year-old whaling moratorium remains intact.

"This is now a period in human history where the whaling issue will be decided once and for all," said Ian Campbell, Australia's minister for the environment and heritage, in an interview Thursday. "Whaling will be stopped, if I have my way, with the only exception being for aboriginal subsistence whaling."

The commission has sharply limited whaling since 1986, making exceptions only for aboriginal whaling and scientific whaling by a handful of countries including Japan and Iceland. Norway ignores the moratorium. These three countries say the moratorium has allowed many species to rebound sufficiently to sustain a commercial fishery and have announced they plan to increase their total current catch of 2,395 whales a year to 3,215 by 2008.

Some whale populations, such as minkes, have indeed rebounded in recent years, but others continue to struggle after being devastated by decades of industrial-scale whaling.

One particularly vulnerable species is the North Atlantic right whale. On Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service proposed restricting the speed of ships along the East Coast at certain times of the year to reduce the chance of vessels hitting and killing the animals, which are on the endangered species list. NOAA officials -- along with academics such as Patrick N. Halpin of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences -- have been tracking the whales' movements to try to limit such incidents, but they said this effort has not eliminated collisions.

William T. Hogarth, who directs NOAA's fisheries service and was elected to chair the Whaling Commission for the next three years, said that while the international community is deadlocked, whaling countries such as Japan are expanding their hunts. He added that some whale populations have yet to recover because they are still being hunted, being killed in ship collisions or becoming entangled in fishing gear.

"We're at an impasse, but we're killing more whales," Hogarth said, referring to Japan, Norway and Iceland. "We're not really protecting whales in the IWC, which we should be."

Anti-whaling countries won a few key votes during the commission's five-day annual meeting on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts that ended Tuesday. They defeated a proposal that would have required secret ballots on whaling issues.

But Bush administration officials said they were alarmed by the 33 to 32 vote in favor of the nonbinding declaration, which says the commission is "about managing whaling to ensure whale stocks are not over-harvested, rather than protecting all whales irrespective of their abundance." It would take a three-quarters vote to repeal the current ban on whaling.

Claudia A. McMurray, assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs at the State Department, said the declaration "will embolden [whaling countries] to work harder, so we have a challenge ahead of us. . . . We can clearly see they are going to continue to try to make changes in the International Whaling Commission as we move forward."

Pro-whaling countries have tried for several years to win a majority on the commission, both by persuading like-minded countries to join and by releasing scientific studies indicating that some whale populations are rebounding.

Halvard P. Johansen, a senior official at Norway's Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, said he and other delegates were encouraged by the declaration vote but expect anti-whaling countries to push back.

"It's interesting to have a majority in favor of sustainable use and lifting of the moratorium," he said in an interview Friday. "It may be the start of a change, but that's very difficult to say because we expect the other side will try to recruit more countries."

Both sides engaged in serious lobbying during the St. Kitts meeting. The United States, according to a senior administration official who asked not to be identified for diplomatic reasons, had encouraged anti-whaling Israel to join the body and lobbied pro-whaling Guatemala to stay home. Japan has recruited at least 19 countries, many from West Africa and the Caribbean, to join the commission and back expanded whaling.

Japan's delegate, Minoru Morimoto, who was elected vice chair of the commission, said at the close of the meeting that the group "has now begun the process for bringing its functions back on track as a resource-management organization that regulates and monitors sustainable whaling."

"Whales should be treated as any other marine living resources available for harvesting, subject to conservation and science-based management," said Morimoto, who will host a meeting in Japan early next year aimed at reviving commercial whaling.

Environmentalists are hoping that the Bush administration will take the lead in blocking any expanded whale hunting. They are pressing the president -- who has raised the issue before with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi -- to bring it up again when the two meet later this week.

"Only the U.S. has the power, if it takes the issue seriously, to change the situation in the water for the world's whales," said Patrick Ramage, spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an advocacy group. "The IWC is now sailing into uncharted and potentially troubled waters coming out of St. Kitts."

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