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.