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Time for a surge in whale conservation

By Frederick M. O’Regan

Our planet’s great whales and those who care about them can breathe a bit easier following last month’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), in Agadir, Morocco. A controversial proposal advanced by the Chair and Vice Chair of the IWC would have rewritten rules to resuscitate the whaling industry in the 21st century.

My organization (International Fund for Animal Welfare) and other concerned groups and individuals worldwide fought hard to preserve the global moratorium on commercial whaling ban. Against considerable odds, we ultimately prevailed. But the battle to save these gentle giants continues and renewed conservation leadership on the part of the United States is urgently needed now if whales and the Whaling Commission are to survive.

After three years of closed-door negotiations and a desperate last-minute push by pro-deal countries, the Obama Administration and other conservation-minded governments wisely said no to a dangerous proposal to legalize commercial whaling and approve killing quotas in an international whale sanctuary around Antarctica.

This last minute reprieve is good news for whales and the Commission established to conserve them, but they are not yet saved. From marine pollution and habitat destruction, to entanglement in outmoded fishing gear, collisions with high speed vessels to noise pollution, ocean acidification to climate change, our planet’s great whales face more threats today than ever before in history.

Successfully addressing these threats and finally ending whaling for commercial purposes by Japan, Iceland and Norway will require sustained, creative leadership from the United States and increased transparency at the IWC.

America is a nation proud of its whaling heritage, of “iron men in wooden ships” who went to sea and returned with the oil that lit the lamps of the western world. Our nation’s migration from Yankee whaling to world leader in Whale Watching has been a uniquely American journey.

We also have a proud bipartisan tradition of international whale conservation leadership. The most important conservation achievements at the IWC, including the moratorium on commercial whaling adopted in 1982 and the creation of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in 1994, were only achieved with high-level support and engagement from the United States.

That same level of engagement is urgently needed now. In the immediate run-up to the Morocco IWC meeting, an extensive undercover investigation by the Times of London demonstrated specific acts of corruption at the IWC, including acting IWC Chair Anthony Liverpool of Antigua Barbuda accepting compensation for flights and accommodations at the meeting from agencies operating on behalf of the Government of Japan.

Despite these dramatic revelations, Liverpool remained as chair during the session. While governments cannot make policy based on press reports, it is critical that the United States move quickly in the wake of the Morocco meeting to dramatically improve the situation at the Whaling Commission and in the water for our planet’s great whales.

Now is the time for a “conservation surge” to secure previous gains, finally end whaling for commercial purposes and put the IWC on course for a sustainable, conservation-based future.

So what will “change we can believe in” look like for whales and the IWC? Among other elements it will involve:

  • Engaging the new Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan and enlightened ministers in his cabinet and other governments worldwide to quickly bring Japan’s unlawful whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary to an end.
  • Encouraging Japan, Iceland and Norway, the last three governments still killing whales for commercial purposes, to halt the international trade in whale products and join the emerging global consensus for whale conservation.
  • Restoring the primacy of the IWC Scientific Committee as the recognized international authority on whale conservation science and engaging its expertise to improve human understanding of whales and the many threats they face.
  • Working through the IWC Conservation Committee to advance state-of-the art conservation plans that protect threatened whale species and populations, and joining Australia, New Zealand and other nations in funding world-class, non-lethal research on whales and their habitats.
  • Reforming and recasting the IWC as a more transparent and accountable “International Whale Commission” with a clear and compelling conservation mandate for the 21st century.

This is an ambitious agenda but one that can be achieved. Rather than facilitating protracted negotiations to define terms under which commercial whaling will be permitted to continue, the time has come for the United States to lead the effort to finally bring it to an end. In that sense, our most important work has just begun.

Fred O’Regan is President of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW www.ifaw.org).

The views expressed here are those of Fred O’Regan or the International Fund for Animal Welfare and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society.