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Don’t Fail the Whales, Mr. President

Activists, including actor Pierce Brosnan, plead with Obama to save the whales from the hunt.

by
Julia Szabo

Bio

June 14, 2010 - 12:00 am

When the social networking phenomenon known as Twitter  goes “over capacity,” microbloggers trying to access the site are met with the image of a smiling whale floating above the waves, caught in a net held aloft by a flock of Tweeting birds. This is known as a “fail whale.” Twitter’s smart creators do nothing by accident; they doubtless selected that delightful image because the world’s largest mammal has impressively high ratings with political animals of all walks. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW):

From the shores of Cape Cod to the California coast and across the political spectrum, Americans love whales. Five national surveys commissioned by [IFAW] over the past decade show overwhelming majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents want these intelligent, gentle creatures protected for future generations. Voters of all subgroups — from rural, conservative GOP members to urban, liberal Democrats — want our government to [protect] whales.

But given the environmental horrors developing daily via news reports on the marine devastation that continues unabated in the Gulf of Mexico, the “fail whale” has taken on tragic, symbolic significance. And now, the Gulf’s suffering birds, fish, and other marine wildlife are not alone: the world’s largest mammals may soon have no protection either. At the International Whaling Commission’s 62nd annual meeting, taking place this week (June 15-18) in Morocco, the IWC’s 88 member nations will vote on a controversial proposal that would effectively allow commercial whaling for the first time in 25 years.

The hauntingly beautiful, sophisticated song of the humpback whale, discovered by biologist Roger Payne in 1967 and recorded in 1970, galvanized the worldwide “Save the Whales” movement. It’s some of the most beautiful music ever made; Payne described the whales’ sonic arrangements, memorably, as “exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound.” But nature’s master musicians are only now beginning to recover from more than two hundred years of commercial whaling, which destroyed 95 percent of historic populations. Whales face the very real threat of extinction thanks to marine pollution, destruction of critical habitats, entanglements in fishing gear, and collisions with high-speed ships.

High-profile environmental activists are calling on President Obama to protect the world’s largest mammals from decimation. What does the actor formerly known as James Bond have in common with the philanthropist famous for offering a $25 million prize to the first entity to provide a safe, effective, and practical non-surgical sterilant for use in cats and dogs? Compassion for whales. Pierce Brosnan and Dr. Gary Michelson are partnering with the National Resources Defense Council, the Humane Society of the United States,  and the  IFAW to urge President Obama to extend protection to whales. Brosnan, who also appears in a compelling PSA urging Americans to sign an online petition, has co-authored an open letter to President Obama. It begins:

Dear Mr. President,

Is it possible that the Obama Administration will capitulate to a proposed plan that permits Japan, Norway, and Iceland to resume commercial whaling? As unlikely as it sounds, the answer is yes. The Obama Administration has indeed supported, behind closed doors, a dangerous new proposal to overturn the global whaling ban.

Although Brosnan’s Twitter account reveals that he follows only one person — Al Gore — this open letter he co-wrote on the whales’ behalf gives credit where it’s due: to a Republican. To wit:

Since President Ronald Reagan first helped usher in the international ban on commercial whaling, every American President has reasserted our nation’s strong leadership in the fight to save the whales. … All the more stunning then, to learn that U.S. government bureaucrats, together with fisheries representatives from a dozen other countries, have emerged from three years of closed-door meetings with a proposal to lift the ban on whaling. The proposal not only rewards Japan, Iceland, and Norway for flouting international law, but also gives these three nations “a license to kill” whales commercially. The group’s final proposal, which was released on April 22nd (Earth Day!), and which will be voted on this June, is as unwise as it is out of the American mainstream.

Despite the moratorium, Japan, Norway, and Iceland harpoon around 2,000 whales annually, arguing — with the support of almost half the IWC’s 88 member nations — that many species are “abundant enough” to justify continuing the hunt. Environmentalists fear, rightly, that the new proposal spells disaster for whales; in 007 terminology, it’s a “license to kill.” The letter continues:

In 1986, after whale populations were plundered to near extinction, the IWC declared a ban on commercial whaling. It remains one of the 20th century’s most iconic conservation victories. However, since the ban was enacted, more than 30,000 whales have been killed — most in international whale sanctuary around Antarctica. Why? The Government of Japan claims it kills whales exclusively for research purposes. It’s an outrageous assertion rejected by the scientific community and undermined by the fact that Japan hunts whales on factory ships and sells whale meat commercially. Japan is now rumored to be seeking a new, state-of-the-art $100 million whaling vessel.

Iceland and Norway, emboldened by ongoing negotiations to undo the whaling ban, have recently ramped up their illegal whaling efforts to lock in higher quotas that will be made possible under this new agreement.

Like the situation in the water for whales, the situation inside the IWC is precarious. Conservation-minded countries now find themselves consistently outmanned by Norway, Iceland, and a fifty-person strong Japanese delegation flanked by a steady stream of small island states and landlocked developing countries recruited by the foreign aid to vote lockstep with Japan.

That last point was driven home by the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, which revealed how Japan allegedly “buys” votes in the IWC, recruiting other nations (Cambodia, Ecuador, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati, Laos, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands) to its commercial whaling agenda. The consequence is devastation for whales, as Brosnan’s letter describes:

As a result, United States influence inside the IWC has waned. The Government of Japan has remained engaged and aggressive, inside and outside the IWC, in pursuit of its declared objective to hunt more whales.

Faced with this challenge, the Obama administration has apparently decided to sound retreat. Five of the last six meetings to hammer out the final “lift-the-ban” proposal have been held on U.S. soil.

Instead of endorsing this sellout of the world’s whales, the American government must work to end the savagery of commercial whaling forever.

Brosnan doesn’t hesitate to remind the president that he risks breaking a major campaign promise in letting down whales and their supporters. In April of 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama promised, “As president, I will ensure the U.S. provides leadership in enforcing wildlife protection agreements, including strengthening the international ban on commercial whaling. Allowing Japan to continue commercial whaling is unacceptable.” But the proposed deal on the IWC table this week guarantees whaling for the next ten years.

The letter concludes with this impassioned plea:

For more than a decade Japan, Iceland, and Norway have worked harder to keep killing whales than our government has worked to protect them. However, it is not too late the turn the tide. The Obama administration must send a clear signal that it intends to end commercial whaling forever. “Change we can believe in” can then extend beyond our shores to benefit our planet’s great whales. Mr. President, please stay in the fight! Stop the sellout, and save the whales!

It’s a call to action every right-thinking American can get behind. Please sign the petition. Let’s not fail the whales.

Journalist and author Julia Szabo wrote the Pets column for the Sunday New York Post, for 11 years and now pens the "Living With Dogs" column for Dogster.com. Follow her on Twitter @PetReporter1. Photo credit: Daniel Reichert
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