Posted by: Renee Owens | May 25, 2010

There’s an Ahab in the White House

BLOG update: The following blog was written in May, 2010. As of late 2010, it is still timely to contact the people at the links below to endorse maintaining the IWC whaling moratorium. Luckily the ban was not eliminated in June, however the international whaling nations are still pushing hard to remove the ban and allow commencement of sensitive and endangered whales again. Your support is still needed to send a message in support of conservation to the White House, the IWC,  Ms. Lubchenko (NOAA) and Mr. Salazar (Department of the Interior).


On May 23, 15 counties in California held “Save the Whales Again Day” rallies, to show opposition to  a “conservation proposal” – a spectacular euphemism – drafted by the U.S. and other delegates to the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

The IWC is comprised of 88 member nations, and this proposal would actually end the moratorium on commercial whaling that was enacted in 1986 by the IWC.  Yes, it will make global whaling legal.

The IWC meets mid-June (2010) to determine whether or not to adopt this proposal that would remove the 24 year old ban on commercial whaling.  Doing so, under this plan, would allow a “yet-to-be-determined” number of whales,  including highly endangered species, to be hunted legally by the very nations who have regularly ignored international law for decades, namely Japan, but to a lesser extent also Norway, Iceland, and Russia.

The fact that these countries have been whaling is not a secret whatsoever, they have been doing so under the “scientific research” loophole of the IWC since its inception.  In other words, the moratorium has an exception that allows the occasional whale to be taken for “scientific research”. The Japanese have maximized this loophole to the tune of thousands of whales a year hunted and sold for whale meat, some legally, some on the black market. Speaking of shady things like the black market, the corruption around the IWC and the Japanese is no secret, as a recent Sunday Times investigation has fully exposed (full article here).

(To see What You Can Do, scroll down below the photo of a whale tail.)

If you were around in the 70’s or 80’s, and are thinking this sounds  like deja vu, you aren’t the only one.  In fact, I was so dumbfounded by this conservation oxymoron of a proposal that I helped organize a rally here in San Diego (with  assistance from Patrick Hord and Greenpeace,  and funded by the Sierra Club and San Diego Animal Advocates ). The illustration we used on our flyers and t-shirts  was the same one used in the mid 80’s for Save The Whales Rallies!

What are Mr. President and Ms. Lubchenko (the head of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency in charge of marine mammal protection) thinking?

Or maybe that’s the problem in a nutshell, thinking has gone out the window, sacrificed in the name of bureaucracy and political posturing once again. Nothing has effectively captivated and popularized the environmental movement over 30 years ago as much as the plight of the whales did, and now we seem to have an Ahab in the white House who has thus far given his blessing to this disastrous plan.

If you are thoughtful person you may be thinking, well,  this Proposal must make some sense, or President Obama would oppose it, we just don’t have the whole story. He likes whales…right? I wanted to believe this, too, and so I read the proposal to the IWC to see what magical formula would somehow allow whaling and yet conserve whales for the future at the same time. My conclusion? I am wondering exactly what bribe the Japanese have offered the United States behind closed doors to generate this complete and utter sell-out. And an embarrassing one at that, at least in the name of conservation science.

In only takes a little bit of digging to discover that the IWC is not a bastion of transparency.

Very few can even tell you who all the U.S. delegates to the IWC are, not to mention how they are appointed, on what basis of experience they are hired for the job, and from whom do they receive oversight? NOAA ? President Obama? Mr. Salazar? All of the above? And where do they get their scientific facts from, such as current  population estimates? Surely they must have these, as they are proposing whaling to be legalized internationally?

Not really: the IWC‘s own website admits, “…because of the considerable scientific uncertainty over the numbers of whales of different species and in different geographical stocks, the International Whaling Commission decided in 1989 that it would be better not to provide whale population figures except for those species/stocks which have been assessed in some detail.”

This hardly inspires faith in their management proposal, when many of the population estimates that provide are 5 to 20 years outdated.

The proposal itself neither inspires much promise for success. In essence it claims we will ‘save whales’ by allowing hunting, but asking the egregious whaling nations to sign on by agreeing to kill fewer whales, as long as we allow them to do so legally. I wonder if they are asking the Japanese to cooperate with a “pretty please, with sugar on top”, because that’s about as likely to succeed as this ‘conservation package’  is. The authors claim there will be stricter enforcement of laws, however they allow major loopholes, such as the one where boat captains can opt out of compliance. They say the plan will create a fair and restricted market that eliminates the black one, but they don’t offer the specifics about how this will be accomplished, or how they will finance it, although they do concede it will cost more that what the IWC spends now on such operations.

What is this whaling Proposal really all about? At face value, it is about selling whale meat. A few of the widely published facts:

– Most whale meat has a mercury content so high it can’t be sold legally. For an excellent article on this, see

– Most large whales are endangered. The Proposal hardly sets any quotas on how many can be hunted. Sound like good science to you?

The logic is wholly skewed. We are rewarding the  nations who have broken international law for a quarter century, and thereby invalidating, the 80+ other nations who have complied.

– Iceland and Norway have been discovered shipping toxic (mercury and PCB-laden) whale meat to other countries; either for human consumption or ground up as livestock feed. Do we really need endangered sperm whale meat to feed our pigs and chickens?

– What do you think is truly motivating the IWC delegates from the United States? Are the diminishing whale meat profits honestly that important to both Japan and the U.S.? Or, is it something else, something being discussed in all of these closed door sessions at the IWC, such as a deal that allows our military to remain in Okinawa with its nuclear arsenal, even though we are hugely unpopular there at them moment with the locals? Just food for thought…

Either the Japanese delegates to the IWC have some very powerful mojo, or some under-the-table deals are being made that none of us little people – the international community concerned for our largest world inhabitants – are privy to.


Contact the White House comment line  – 202-456-1111 – and tell President Obama to keep the moratorium on whaling intact! You can also post a comment by email, but calling is  more effective.


The following are the latest actions demonstrating opposition to this ban:

Bills Introduced to Restate Opposition to Commercial Whaling

On May 18, Rep Faleomavaega, Eni F.H. (D-AS) introduced Bill HR 2455 to amend the Whale Conservation and Protection Study Act to restate opposition to allowing commercial whaling or weakening of the moratorium, increase protection for whales from shipping noise and injury, and increase whale conservation research.  The bill has 54 cosponsors and has been referred to the Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife.  For more information, visit:

A similar Bill was introduced to the Senate by John Kerry, S 3116. for more information go here.

Like many this year, both these bills have been stalled in committees. Regardless of the outcome of this month’s IWC proposal, I urge you to contact your Congressional Representative or Senator to move these bills to a vote by the House and the Senate.

Senators Boxer and Feinstein drafted a letter to the President, urging him to oppose ending the moratorium. A total of 17 Senators have signed on to this letter. For more information see the U.S. Humane Society press releases here.

California Coastal Commission Passes Resolution to Oppose Renewal of Commercial Whaling

On May 12, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) unanimously passed a resolution urging President Obama to oppose the proposed agreement by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to renew commercial whaling and set ten-year subsistence quotas and commercial catch limits for numerous whale species.  The resolution also requested that the U.S. support an end to all commercial whaling, including “scientific whaling,” and focus on protecting whales and whale habitat, encouraging the use of non-lethal and non-harassing uses of whales for education and scientific study, and address global environmental problems than endanger whale populations.

The resolution was forwarded to the President in an effort to implore a strong U.S. position at the upcoming IWC meeting in June.  California’s Congressional delegation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the Majority Leader of the Senate also received copies of the resolution.  For more information or to read the resolution, visit:


  1. Renee, It is important to point out that the San Diego rally was in conjunction with 15 others on the same day throughout the coast and that if people want to know what they can do to help they can go on line to They can sign the petition, sign letters to our Senators, Boxer and Feinstein, etc.

  2. HI Sara,
    If you read the first line, I mention the 15 others right off the bat. Also, see the What You Can Do in red. You’re in there!

  3. Your reference to an Ahab in the White House called to mind this recent editorial in the New York Times: “The Ahab Parallax: ‘Moby Dick’ and the Spill.” The piece does a nice job of showing how our current oil addiction has its roots going back centuries to the frenzy for whale oil.

  4. International fisheries are extremely difficult to regulate, whether we are talking about whales (which were historically labeled as a fish) or bluefin tuna). Using bluefin tuna as an example – we continue to actively pursue this species even though it is considered to be more depleted (endangered) than most whale species. Just because something is endangered does not protect it from international trade. The East Atlantic population relies on the Gulf of Mexico for spawning, but now faces even more serious environmental damage than the annual Gulf Dead Zone (from Mississippi nutrient floods). The Mediterranean population of Bluefin is down to a few hundred thousand. Yet they are continually fished since 1 individual fish over 100 pounds in size can have a dock value of $1,000 if in “premium” condition. I don’t have a lot of hope for a well-regulated whale “fishery” if we can’t properly maintain species that are “classic” food species. The “good” thing the whales have going for them is lots of mainstream press and glitzy Hollywood stars providing sound bites on their behalf. Very few people are concerned with the plight of tuna…although Greenpeace did make a valiant effort recently to prevent a major juvenile tuna harvest (too bad they didn’t pay attention to recent beefed-up anti-piracy efforts by the French).
    Honestly I think the whale fishery will bomb pretty quickly. I think the toxicity of whale meat is receiving more notice lately. We just have to make sure that other nations are publicizing that information clearly. Perhaps something like a surgeon-general’s warning on every can of whale meat “Warning: whale meat contains high concentrations of mercury and fat soluble pesticides. Consumption of this product can lead to increased aggression and forgetfulness.” Wait a minute… maybe that’s the problem. People are eating too much whale meat and are becoming more aggressive and then they forget why…

    • Excellent points, Kelly! I agree, but I also know that, like it or not, it is easier to get the attention of the average American – or Brit, or Argentinian, or French person, etc. – by speaking to the plight of whales, over a fish – except, perhaps, when you remove their favorite dishes from the menu. If we can’t get citizens’ attention enough to fight to preserve the blue whale, then what can we protect in this day and age? As importantly, or so I think, the topic of whales has the potential to highlight discussion that the many problems facing whales are the same facing many other ocean species, such as the impacts of climate change and pollution. The looming reality of Arctic zoo- and phytoplankton populations crashing indefinitely simply scares the heck out me, as it should everyone else.

      I agree about the difficulties of regulating international fisheries, which is why I think it was completely naive (or a smoke screen, more likely) of the IWC in their latest proposal to pretend they could somehow better police international waters while allowing whaling that was already occurring, not to mention the loopholes proposed that made such such enforcement mute.

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