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By Kelly Dyer October 9, 2012

Obama's leadership on whaling: progress but no sea change

To fulfill Barack Obama's campaign promise to protect whales, the administration has used the bully pulpit -- and an iPhone app.

Our most recent update on the promise to "strengthen the international moratorium on commercial whaling" was rated In the Works. We are revisiting the promise to see if Obama has made further progress in protecting whales.

We find a mixed record.

The promise specifically deemed Japan's whaling activities "unacceptable." While the 1986 Whaling Moratorium banned all international commercial whaling, loopholes within the moratorium allow limited whaling for "scientific research." And Japan has continued to use these loopholes to get around the moratorium, but claims that it is not violating the rules.

The United States, through the State Department, has continued to emphasize the international moratorium to Japan. So Obama has followed through on that portion of the promise.

In our last update, we also mentioned that Obama had been notified by then-Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke about whaling occurring in Iceland that undermined the international whaling moratorium. The Obama administration, however, has not used a provision known as the Pelly Amendment to impose economic sanctions against Iceland.

Locke's original warning to Obama in July 2011 included a plan of action to address Iceland's whaling.

In response, Obama sent a letter to Congress denouncing Iceland's commercial whaling practices. The letter outlined a six-part plan to impose diplomatic sanctions as originally proposed by Locke.

The plan included limiting visits by Cabinet members to Iceland, sending other officials to emphasize U.S. concerns about commercial whaling, and ordering the Department of State to inform Iceland that the U.S. will be monitoring future whaling activity and to possibly limit cooperation on various Arctic projects.

Obama directed the appropriate departments and agencies to report back to him in six months.

A follow-up report gave an explanation of actions taken by the relevant departments and stated that "Senior Administration officials have raised our concerns on whaling with Icelandic Government officials at every opportunity."

Obama's promise to "strengthen" the moratorium is somewhat difficult to quantitatively evaluate, but we think it's accurate to say the Obama administration has been a leader in worldwide whale conservation through the response to Iceland and through other initiatives.

The United States continues to be an advocate for reducing ship collisions with whales, and U.S. government agencies have created a whale watching database. They also created an iPhone app called "WhaleAlert!" that helps keep ships from colliding with the highly endangered Right Whale.

The U.S. also proposed amendments to the International Maritime Organization that would redesignate travel lanes for coastal shipping in California.

The key aspects of Obama's promise include providing "leadership" in conservation efforts and strengthening the moratorium which he has done through various initiatives. But here's the catch: Japan, Iceland and Norway are still whaling. We rate this a Compromise.

Our Sources

Interview with Phil Kline, senior oceans campaigner, Greenpeace, Sept. 25, 2012

Interview with Karen Costa,  the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Oct. 2, 2012

Interview with Caitlin Hayden, White House Spokesperson, Oct. 1, 2012

White House, Press Release, Sept. 15, 2011

NOAA, Agencies directed to take actions to encourage Iceland to change whaling policy, Sept. 15, 2011

NOAA, Letter to President on Pelly Amendment  from Gary Locke, Secretary of Commerce, Jul. 19, 2011

BBC News, Whale sanctuary bid for South Atlantic falls short, accessed Sept. 25, 2012

Environment News Service, Whaling Nations Erode Moratorium, Toxics of Universal Concern

By David G. Taylor July 21, 2011

Incremental progress at the International Whaling Commission

The last time we looked at this promise, we rated it Stalled, because talks at the International Whaling Commission had broken down in 2010. Recent events, however, show a more positive outlook on Obama's promise to strengthen international rules against commercial whaling.

First, a little background.

Formed in 1946, the International Whaling Commission currently includes 89 member countries, including the United States, and was designed to regulate the practice of whaling to insure adequate supply of whale stocks. Over the years, the commission evolved from a regulatory body that oversaw an active whaling industry to one more inclined to pure conservation. This conservationist sentiment culminated in 1986 when the IWC implemented a worldwide moratorium on whaling.

Despite this moratorium, three nations continue whaling: Japan, Iceland, and Norway. The two Scandinavian countries practice commercial whaling, in which whales are hunted and their meat sold commercially. Japan, meanwhile, practices scientific whaling in which a number of whales -- more than 1,000 per year -- are killed for study. Critics contend that this scientific whaling serves as a fig leaf for commercial hunts, as the whale meat is still sold in Japanese markets. These nations -- referred to collectively as "sustainable whaling countries"-- place unilateral quotas on the number of whales that can be killed, which are not subject to international oversight. 

The United States' official stance on whaling is to practice conservation while allowing aboriginal groups, such as Native Americans in Alaska, to continue subsistence hunting. The IWC gives indigenous groups quotas that must be renewed every five years, with the next renewal pending at the 2012 meeting in Panama City, Panama. These subsistence hunting rights, in addition to a push for more NGO involvement at the IWC, are two of the key issues that the United States will advocate for at next year's IWC meeting. 

The IWC's annual meetings are often characterized by acrimony, as talks break down between countries that believe the IWC should be a regulatory body (including pro-whaling countries) and those who favor a primarily conservation-based approach.

At the 2010 IWC meeting in Morocco, the United States came under criticism from environmental groups for supporting a provision that would have instituted a globally recognized quota system on the three pro-whaling countries. These quotas would gradually lower the number of whales that could be killed over a period of ten years, eventually dropping below the quotas these countries now impose on themselves. While the United States and other supportive countries saw this as a positive deal, some conservation groups argued that it legalized whaling and defied the IWC moratorium. In any case, the talks eventually fell apart and no agreement was made. 

The June 2011, the IWC meeting on the island of Jersey was slightly more productive, with the United States backing a British proposal to reform member nation's financial contribution to the IWC. Instead of paying dues by cash or check, members must now pay through bank transfers. Prior to this reform, there had been corruption allegations about vote-buying.

The U.S. has also threatened Iceland with sanction for its continued commercial whaling. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke notified President Obama on July 20, 2011, that he believed Iceland was in violation of the Pelly Amendment to the U.S. Fishermen's Protective Act of 1967, an environmental treaty. Locke's letter said that Icelander were "conducting fishing operations which diminish the effectiveness of an international fishery conservation program." President Obama has sixty days on whether to authorize sanctions. 

We spoke with Phil Kline, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace USA, about the administration's performance when it comes to international whaling. Kline, while skeptical of U.S. actions in 2010, approved of the country's more recent moves, especially in light of the commerce secretary's letter and U.S. support for the funding reforms at the IWC. "I have to say President Obama is on the right track and is now living up to his campaign promises on whale conservation and leadership," said Kline in an e-mail interview.

While the IWC talks remain acrimonious, the United States has clearly supported measures in the last few years to conserve whales and update commission rules. In addition, the recent threat of sanctions against Iceland shows that the administration is taking a more proactive stance toward stopping whaling. Although the moratorium has not been officially strengthened, we feel that these are strong steps toward this goal. We move this promise from Compromised to In the Works.

Our Sources

BBC, "Q&A: Global whaling deal negotiations," June 22, 2010.

The New York Times, "Walkout Sours Global Whaling Conference," July 14, 2011.

Agence-France Presse, "True to form, global whaling forum ends on sour note," July 14, 2011.
U.S. Commercy Secretary Gary Locke's letter to President Obama, July 19, 2011.

Agence-France Presse, "US threatens Iceland with sanctions over whaling," July 20, 2011.

Interview with Justin Kenney, Director of Communications, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Interview with Scott Smullen, Deputy Director of Communications, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

E-mail interview with Phil Kline, Oceans Campaigner, Greenpeace USA.

By Erin Mershon June 30, 2010

International Whaling Commission meeting ends in stalemate

Last week, we reported on the status of President Obama's campaign promise to strengthen the international moratorium on commercial whaling. At the time, we rated the promise In the Works, since the administration was still preparing for the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission that concluded Wednesday June 23, 2010.

The meeting brought to a close three years of diplomatic efforts to reduce rising tensions between the pro-whaling and anti-whaling countries of the 88-member commission. The main goal of the meeting was to forge a compromise to allow Japan, Norway, and Iceland to kill whales, but only under strict regulation and at substantially reduced numbers.

Although the commission has maintained a moratorium on commercial whaling for the last 24 years, Japan, Norway and Iceland kill a combined total of about 2,000 whales per year under self-imposed quotas. About half are killed by Japanese whalers, who cite a loophole for "scientific research" to explain their kills. Norway and Iceland both filed official objections that exempt them from the moratorium.

Despite initial hopes that a compromise could be reached at this year's meeting, talks broke down after three days of negotiation behind closed doors. Several countries, including the United States, pushed for an agreement that would eventually phase out all whale hunting over time. U.S. Whaling Commissioner Monica Medina said that "all whaling, other than indigenous subsistence whaling, should come to an end." Japanese officials, however, resisted that goal, as well as attempts to set limits on their hunts in Antarctica and in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

Medina's demand that the IWC eventually eliminate whaling supports Obama's pledge to strengthen the international moratorium on commercial whaling. But because the negotiations fell apart at the meeting in Morocco, no action will be taken to enhance the ban or increase restrictions on the whaling countries.

"Continuation of the impasse here may retain the whaling moratorium on paper, but unregulated whaling outside of IWC control, by Japan, Norway, and Iceland, will now be able to continue," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, the Pew Environment Group's Deputy Director for International Policy.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer said that the commission will likely fall apart unless a compromise can be reached in the next few years. Should the IWC dissolve, "the whales will be worse off," he said.

The IWC plans to reopen this issue again next year. We'll be keeping an eye on this promise as the administration heads into future negotiations, but until we see concrete action to strengthen the moratorium or impose harsher regulations on the whaling countries, we rate this promise Stalled.

Our Sources

By Erin Mershon June 17, 2010

Proposal being debated by International Whaling Commission

We're adding a new promise to the Obameter at the suggestion of one of our readers, who called our attention to an outcry by environmental groups that President Obama is breaking a pledge he made on the campaign trail about commercial whaling. We checked with the environmental group Greenpeace and found his original remarks from a questionnaire they sent him in December of 2007:

"As president, I will ensure that the U.S. provides leadership in enforcing international wildlife protection agreements, including strengthening the international moratorium on commercial whaling. Allowing Japan to continue commercial whaling is unacceptable," Obama wrote.

So we're adding it as Promise No. 524.

Groups such as Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare are warning that Obama might break this promise because they believe he supports a proposal within the International Whaling Commission that would allow Japan and other whaling countries to kill a certain number of whales each year, despite the moratorium on commercial whaling that the IWC established in 1986.

Japan, Norway and Iceland kill a combined total of about 2,000 whales per year under self-imposed quotas. About half are killed by Japanese whalers, who exploit a loophole for "scientific research" to justify their kills. Norway and Iceland both filed official objections that exempt them from the moratorium.

In April, the leaders of the IWC made a proposal to mitigate tension between the pro-whaling and anti-whaling countries of the gridlocked commission. It was based on a belief that without some compromise, the IWC — and the moratorium it upholds — would both dissolve. If the proposal is accepted as it stands, it will legalize commercial whaling only for Japan, Norway, and Iceland. All other countries would remain subject to the moratorium. In exchange, the whaling countries will submit to stricter regulation and monitoring, and agree to quotas that some estimate will save 4,000 to 18,000 whales over the next 10 years. The IWC will be negotiating this proposal at their annual conference in Morocco until Sunday, when they hope to reach a consensus decision.

The new proposal, then, does two things at once. It weakens the international moratorium on commercial whaling by openly allowing three countries to violate the ban. But at the same time, officials argue that the new regulations and quotas will conserve far more whales than are conserved under existing conditions. 

It has been sharply criticized by environmental groups such as Greenpeace.

"If they adopted it today, [they are] rewarding whaling countries for thumbing their noses at the rest of them," said Phil Kline, the Senior Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace. "It"s good for whalers, not for the whales."

But the IWC leaders said in a press release that the proposal is "undeniably better than the status quo."

Whether the Obama administration supports the proposal is a matter of some debate. Many advocacy groups claim the administration supports it, which seems to be based on second-hand reports from other delegates to the IWC that the U.S. delegation has asked them to join the negotiation process.

But Monica Medina, U.S. Commissioner to the IWC, said a recent press briefing that the U.S. does not believe "the proposal as it"s currently drafted is sufficient," noting that the administration would like to see lower numbers for killing whales, firmer language regarding the ability to trade whale meat internationally, and a firm understanding of the commission"s plans after the 10-year proposal lapses.   

Kline, the Greenpeace official, said he's encouraged that U.S. could end up pushing a more limited proposal. "There seem to be some hopeful signs that the Obama administration is not going to, at the end of the day, support a proposal that"s good for the whalers and not for the whales," said Kline, who spoke to PolitiFact from the IWC meeting in Morocco. "But," he noted, "it"s not over until it"s over."
We agree, and since the Obama administration has not yet supported or opposed the proposal under consideration, we rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

U.S. Department of State, Foreign Press Center Briefing with Christan Maquiera and Monica Medina, May 27, 2010.

Greenpeace, Candidate Questionnaire Response by Barack Obama, December 3, 2007.

International Whaling Commission, Revised Press Release, May 11, 2010.

Greenpeace, Pew Environment Group and WWF, Press Phone Briefing with Susan Lieberman, Wendy Elliott, and Sarah Duthie, June 16, 2010.

Greenpeace, Pew Environment Group, and WWF, Position Paper on Proposed IWC Consensus Decision.

U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Written Testimony of Monica Medina, May 6, 2010.

IWC, Proposed Consensus Decision to Improve the Conservation of Whales, April 22, 2010.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Commissioner Medina's Statement on International Whaling Commission Proposal, April 22, 2010.

The Economist, A Giant Compromise?, April 29, 2010.

The Atlantic, A Whale of an Exception, April 29, 2010.

The Huffington Post, Toxic or Not, Commercial Whaling is Back on the Table, March 30, 2010.

The Washington Post, With some species rebounding, commission weighs loosening of ban, March 29, 2010.

Reuters, Commercial Whaling May Continue for 10 Years, April 22, 2010.

Pew Environment Group,Statement to the 61st Annual Meeting of the IWC, June 2009.

Phone interview with Dan Klotz, Communications Officer for Pew Environment Group, June 15, 2010.

Phone interview with Jane Kochersperger, Greenpeace Media Officer, June 16, 2010.

Phone interview with Phil Kline, Senior Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace, June 16, 2010.

Email interview with Christine Glunz, White House Council on Environmental Quality, June 16, 2010.

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