Notes & Comment May 1999

Flouting the Convention

The ongoing campaign to ban all commercial whaling is driven by politics rather than science, and is setting a terrible precedent

The Japanese are particularly angered by the IWC's ongoing failure to fulfill its legal obligations to whaling-treaty members. They point to the extensive research—much of it done by non-Japanese scientists and endorsed by the IWC Scientific Committee and the international scientific community—suggesting that an interim reinstatement of coastal minke whaling (until the implementation of the RMP) would not be harmful. When such research is ignored or trivialized by the IWC itself, it is easy for the Japanese to conclude that the United States and its anti-whaling allies are irrational, dishonorable, and racially prejudiced. To Japan and other countries, a Western antagonism to whaling and to the use of whale products smacks of cultural imperialism.

To counter the pleas of countries like Norway and Japan, the anti-whaling members of the IWC assert that worldwide public opinion now opposes commercial whaling. But the convention's acceptance of whaling is not an isolated anachronism. In recent years United Nations conferences have twice had an opportunity to oppose whaling, and have twice declined to take it. In 1982, soon after the IWC adopted the whaling moratorium, 119 states signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, an agreement that permits whaling on the high seas. Individual nations may forbid their nationals to take whales, and coastal states may prohibit all takes within their national waters, but unless states jointly agree otherwise, whaling can go on. In 1992 the UN Conference on Environment and Development reaffirmed the provisions of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, explicitly rejecting efforts by anti-whaling forces to exclude whales from the list of resources open to sustainable use and development. Both actions show that there is no international consensus against whaling.

Despite this lack of a consensus, in 1994 the New Zealand commissioner stated that his country would "work to maintain the moratorium on commercial whaling because it reflects the current reality of world opinion"—an assertion subsequently repeated by the British and U.S. commissioners. The evidence does not support this claim. Public-opinion polls have for years indicated that people in putatively anti-whaling countries do not know that many whale species are not near extinction—and that when they learn this fact, they are willing to support whaling. In April of last year, to cite a recent example, Responsive Management, an American polling firm specializing in environmental issues, released a survey of attitudes toward whaling in Australia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. At the outset of the survey 92 percent of those polled admitted that they knew little or nothing about minke whales, the species now of most interest to whaling countries. When informed that the minke is not endangered, that its harvest is traditional in some places, and that an IWC-managed hunt would ensure that there would be no adverse effect on whale numbers, 71 percent of U.S. respondents said they would endorse regulated whaling for minkes. A majority of respondents from each of the other three nations also favored minke whaling under these conditions, though the majority was not as large.

These results are not surprising. Most people in the West know that they personally benefit from the slaughter of large numbers of food animals every year, and that in general it is perfectly lawful to take non-endangered animals in regulated hunts. Responsive Management found that only six percent of the Australian and U.S. respondents opposed whaling on the grounds of animal rights.

Perhaps sensing that informed public support for a total whaling ban would be weak, whaling-ban advocates frequently resort to campaigns that can most kindly be referred to as "artful." Despite a decades-old scientific consensus that most whale species do not face extinction, Greenpeace and other anti-whaling groups continue to decry a supposed illicit trade in whale products, implying that a large global market for such products exists. This has not been the case for decades, and is not likely to be so again. Nor are there large numbers of potential whaling interests anywhere in the world waiting to resume uncontrolled whaling once the moratorium is lifted, as whaling-ban advocates also claim. What is at work here is politics—and the opportunity for anti-whaling organizations to raise substantial revenues through emotionally powerful but deceptive campaigns.

The whaling industry has done much to deserve activists' ire, and public-awareness campaigns about its behavior are laudable. But they are also simplistic and misleading—often deliberately so, to attract funding and support. The slogan "Save the whale," for example, was far more effective in awakening public concern than the scientifically correct "Save the particular whale stocks threatened by overhunting" would have been. Unfortunately, the slogan was hijacked by a small group of animal-protection activists, who mustered public support for a whaling ban by creating the false impression that all whale stocks were in danger. Politicians found it easy to follow this lead.

With the arrival of cheaper substitute oils in the early 1970s, the whaling industry in most countries approached collapse. As the small, unprofitable whaling industries in Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Peru, Spain, and the United States closed down, no significant constituencies in those countries remained to counter the claims of activist groups, and a whaling ban became a political freebie. By militating against whaling, these countries could project an environment-friendly image abroad without antagonizing business or labor interests at home.

In the United States senators and representatives from both parties have eagerly advertised their anti-whaling credentials. In June of 1996 the House Resources Committee, not otherwise known for its commitment to environmental activism, unanimously resolved to ask the IWC to block whaling by the Makah Indian tribe of Washington state. The chief proponent of the resolution was Jack Metcalf, a Washington Republican who, The Seattle Times tartly noted, was regarded as having "one of the least-green voting records in Congress." And last May the Senate, fresh from its refusal even to consider a treaty on global warming, unanimously resolved to "remain firmly opposed to commercial whaling."

In the ongoing campaign to ban whale hunting altogether, the ends do not justify the means. By spurning all attempts at compromise, today's anti-whaling crusaders have the potential to disrupt the large-scale environmental legislation of tomorrow.

To address such issues as global warming, the overuse of freshwater supplies, acid rain, overfishing in the oceans, the introduction of species to new environments, and other international environmental problems, the nations of the world will have to negotiate with one another—and for negotiations to be successful, all sides will have to compromise. Necessarily, the sacrifices will be harder for poor countries than for rich ones—note the reluctance of Third World nations to sign a greenhouse-gas agreement. But the sacrifices must be agreed upon and implemented in good faith. For Western nations to provide clear evidence in a highly visible forum that they are willing to flout past agreements, as they have with whaling, dims the prospect for reaching new ones in the future.

Because of the intransigence of anti-whaling nations, the IWC is rapidly becoming irrelevant. Some nations that want to whale but view the commission as a science-free forum for eco-posturing—Japan and Norway in particular—have taken advantage of the convention's provisions for opting out of IWC decisions. Other whaling nations, such as Canada and Iceland, have simply exited the IWC. Today almost all whaling is conducted by nonmembers in accordance with general international law or by IWC members ignoring the commission's (nonbinding) decisions. Fortunately, the latter nations, mainly Norway and Japan, have chosen to limit their catches to sustainable levels. But the example of an international environmental agency politicizing itself into irrelevance is alarming.

The means for protecting whale populations, allowing a resumption of controlled whaling, and rescuing the IWC from itself already exist: a plan known as the Revised Management Scheme. First proposed in 1992 by Australia, and supported by five other nations, including the United States, the Revised Management Scheme incorporates the Revised Management Procedure and adds an observer program and other safeguards to ensure that whaling operations do not endanger whale populations.

Under such a plan a return to large-scale commercial whaling is highly unlikely. The reasons are economic, biological, and social: Inexpensive substitutes have eliminated the market for whale oil, and the market for whale meat is very limited. The slow growth of whale populations means that large-scale whaling is unlikely even to be possible for the foreseeable future. And whales today are protected by the most important safeguard of all: an ecological awareness, which is now firmly implanted in the minds of the public and politicians alike, that nowhere existed during the ruinous heyday of industrial whaling.

Pointing to the recently revealed cheating of the Soviet Antarctic whaling fleet, whaling-ban advocates claim that the ban can't be lifted because whaling nations can't be trusted. But the cheating took place before any observer program existed. Together with other enforcement methods, observer programs have proved effective in regulating the take of dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean and of fish in the United States' exclusive economic zone of the North Pacific. An international observer program independent of the IWC was implemented last year by four North Atlantic whaling nations. But attempts to put together an observer program within the IWC are moving extremely slowly, because anti-whaling nations see that putting it in place will remove a barrier to whaling.

As a first step toward rescuing the International Whaling Commission, the Revised Management Scheme should be completed and fully implemented without further delay. Ending the charade at the IWC would induce more whaling countries to follow its dictates—and would for the first time bring most or all of the whaling industry under a science-based scheme of international regulation. It would also suggest that nations in diverse economic and cultural circumstances can cooperate and compromise for the mutual environmental good—something that will be in ever greater demand.

Presented by

William Aron, William Burke, and Milton Freeman

William Aron is an affiliate professor at the University of Washington and has recently retired as the director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. William Burke is a professor of law and of marine affairs at the University of Washington. Milton Freeman is the Henry Marshall Tory Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta.

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