Obama’s Whale of a Backslide

Posted by Lisa Franzetta, ALDF's Director of Communications on May 4, 2010

When I was in fifth grade, each member of my class was asked to write a research report on the animal of her choice. Though my elementary school “research” technique generally involved awkwardly rephrasing entire entries from the World Book Encyclopedia, I was inspired in my selection by a National Geographic magazine with a cover feature about endangered humpback whales. Like many others, I was captivated by these gigantic, highly intelligent animals, and I mark that report as the beginning of my awareness of animal and environmental issues. At just the age most children are beginning to wrestle with the concept of mortality, I would lie awake in bed at night also pondering the deaths of entire species (making me a very popular guest at sleepover parties).

It was right around this time, in 1986, that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, a horrifically devastating industry that most Americans have been happy to leave buried forever in the 80s trash bin, sandwiched somewhere between Punky Brewster and a pair of giant shoulder pads. Prior to the moratorium, a number of whale populations were on the brink of annihilation, and somewhere between six- and forty-thousand (estimates vary) of these leviathans were being slaughtered each year.

Make no mistake–as anyone who’s tuned in lately for an episode of “Whale Wars” knows, whales continue to be violently harpooned in bloody hunts. Because of loopholes in the current IWC ban, Norway and Iceland assert they have a right to essentially ignore the moratorium, and Japan exploits an exception allowing for whaling in the name of “scientific research,” which is widely regarded as a very thin cover for Japanese commercial whaling operations, which produce illegal whale meat for Japanese tables (the New York Times recently reported that a single whale can bring as much as $100,000 in Japanese fish markets). However, since the moratorium, the number of whales killed each year has dropped to something more like 2,000, and while a number of species still hover perilously close to extinction, numbers are slowly rebounding.

So often at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, we see cases of laws failing to represent the sentiments of our citizenry. For the most part, as a society we believe the abuse of animals or wanton destruction of species should not be tolerated–and yet, our laws frequently lag in reflecting this understanding. Yet in the case of the commercial whaling moratorium, we have an example of a global regulation that actually speaks to the disgust so many of us feel at the slaughter of these magnificent, desperately endangered beings for the sake of profit. And slowly recovering whale populations speak to the fact that, while things could still be much brighter, and critical loopholes must be tightened up, the moratorium is having measurable success. According to National Resources Defense Council senior attorney Joel Reynolds in a recent piece published in the Los Angeles Times, the global ban on commercial whaling “is one of the singular environmental achievements of the 20th century.” OMG. It’s working, people.

So why, then, is the Obama administration backing a plan announced by the International Whaling Commission on April 22–that’s Earth Day, for those of you on irony watch–to lift the ban on commercial whaling for ten years? They argue that by legalizing whaling and bringing it out into the open, the number of whales killed will be reduced, because the whaling nations will have stricter limits placed on their whaling activity. According to The Economist, supporters of lifting the ban, “including Monica Medina, who heads America’s IWC delegation–say the deal seeks to ‘depoliticise’ the whaling that does go on, while laying the ground for a tougher conservation system.”

However, while the plan alludes to a quota in numbers of whales allowed to be killed by the whaling nations, no actual numbers have been agreed upon. And, as Mr. Reynolds lays out,

The exception for scientific whaling exploited by Japan will not be rescinded, nor will the exceptions claimed by Norway and Iceland be nullified. The agreement is fundamentally premised on an expectation that the countries signing the agreement will abide by it, notwithstanding their continuing right under the broader whaling convention to kill whales for research or pursuant to their existing exception. Thus, the fundamental problem of loopholes remains.

Frankly, I find the IWC and Obama administration’s rationale baffling, particularly given that there is absolutely no provision in their proposed deal that would require a phase-out of whaling, in ten years, or ever. And here, I’d like to offer one more block quote from Mr. Reynolds’ piece, because he gets to the heart of the belief–one that is shared by ALDF–that our moral imperative to animals must also be a legal imperative:

(L)egalizing whaling in order to eliminate it makes as little sense as allowing criminal activity in order to eliminate crime. By adopting the moratorium on commercial whaling, the world agreed that whaling, except for purposes of scientific research and subsistence, should not be allowed. Period. By suspending that global norm, the U.S. and the whaling commission will be ceding the legal and even the moral high ground to the very countries that, for decades, have been doing their best to circumvent it. Rather than a step forward in the fight against commercial whaling, this is a monumental step backward.

At the very moment Obama should be asserting the power of the law to protect whale populations from decimation, and individual whales from horrific deaths-by-harpoon for the sake of cultural palate preferences, he is, instead, yielding to a political pragmatism that seems at best myopic, and, at worst, desperately out of touch with reality.

Australia and New Zealand, meanwhile, are truly standing up for their citizens’ interest in protecting endangered whales by walking their talk and rejecting the proposed “compromise deal” outright. Days ago, the Australian government announced plans to move ahead with threatened legal proceedings against Japan for their ongoing “scientific” whale hunt, stating, ”… If we judge that we are unlikely to achieve our objectives diplomatically, the government will be ready to proceed with legal action.” Meanwhile, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murry McCully has stated that his country is committed to ending whaling, and that a proposal that fails to improve on the status quo will not suffice. “The proposal to include (endangered) fin whales in the southern ocean is inflammatory," McCully said. "New Zealanders will not accept this."

Will Americans?

11 thoughts on “Obama’s Whale of a Backslide

  1. Matt Dicenzo says:

    Excellent information! Thank you

  2. anonymous says:

    It’s a pathetic move by Obama. Petition against it:


    Don’t Lift The Whaling Ban – Not On Earth Day, Not Ever.

    Dear President Obama,

    As a candidate you said, “As President, I will ensure 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.”

    Today, disturbing reports indicate that your administration may support an international agreement permitting Japan and other countries to resume commercial whaling.

    Scientists and environmental groups worldwide object to this unseemly, back-room deal to reward Japan for decades of illegal whaling under the guise of scientific research. So does the American public.

    Mr. President, we respectfully request that you do the right thing. Please act immediately to instruct U.S. representatives to the International Whaling Commission to work toward the END of commercial whaling worldwide.

    [Your name]

  3. anonymous says:

    In 2008 Obama pledged to strengthen the moratorium, it’s atrocious of him to now support a 10 year ban. Good analogy in your post regarding compromises to allow some crime in order to stop crime. Just a totally ass backwards paradoxical baffling blunder.

    Another petition:


  4. stephen ma says:

    Do not allow the whalers to legalize their activity. Please join us in taking action in supporting & encouraging anti whaling nations in phasing out whaling. Banning all forms of whale hunting is true conservation!

    Few days left to make our voices heard. Delegates from around the world will be joining to determine the future of the whales. A number of pro whaling nations are seeking to lift the ban and hunt openly, help save the whales !!!

  5. Dianne says:

    The world is not a creation specifically for the benefit and pleasure of human beings. Furthermore, in some circumstances according with their karma, humans can be reborn as humans and animals can be reborn as humans. In Buddhism the most fundamental guideline for conduct is ahimsa-the prohibition against the bringing of harm and/or death to any living being. Buddhism affirms the unity of all living beings, all equally posses the Buddha-nature, and all have the potential to become Buddhas, that is, to become fully and perfectly enlightened. Among the sentient, there are no second-class citizens. According to Buddhist teaching, human beings do not have a privileged, special place above and beyond that of the rest of life. A potential issue, here, is that it seems that an action which is not recognized as harming any being, and perhaps even has a positive motivation, may, in actual fact, contribute to harmful effects to the environment and the beings in it. Indeed, while the primary emphasis of the lay ethical precepts is also on avoiding intentional harm, negative environmental effects can be unintentional consequences of people’s actions. As regards actions which directly and intentionally harm beings in the environment, it is clear that this is directly against Buddhist ethics, for example: killing animals, whether they belong to an endangered species, or not; dumping toxic chemicals in areas where it is known that they will do harm (cf. Vin.IV.49, as discussed above); burning large areas of forest with no regard for the animals whose life depends on it. For example, the Brahmajāla Sūtra’s forty-eight secondary precepts for Bodhisattvas include: 14. On Starting Wildfires. A disciple of the Buddha shall not, out of evil intentions, start wildfires to clear forests and burn vegetation on mountains and plains, during the fourth to the ninth months of the lunar year. Such fires [are particularly injurious to animals during that period and may spread] to people’s homes, towns and villages, temples and monasteries, fields and groves, as well as the [unseen] dwellings and possessions of deities and ghosts. He must not intentionally set fire to any place where there is life. If he deliberately does so, he commits a secondary offense. What, though, of the fact that unintentionally causing harm is generally seen as not generating bad karmic results—though we have seen that the Vinaya censures even some of these? When we look at the range of environmental problems facing the world, their harmful effects are often not intended by those that produce them: global warming, as a result of burning fossil fuels—an activity which, in itself, seems fairly innocuous, though evidence indicates that if this is not reduced in the next few decades, it may reach an uncontrollable, self-sustaining level, that will be a great threat to much life on earth; depletion of the ozone layer; • pollution of air, land, and water, by industrial effluents, agricultural chemicals such as insecticides and fertilizers—and noise, all of which may be side-effects of such things as producing goods and providing jobs; • resource depletion; • extinction of species, e.g., due to logging and human population encroachment. ‘With the Medicine Buddha mantra you can liberate numberless sentient beings from oceans of suffering and bring them to enlightenment.’ – Lama Zopa. Tayata Om Bekanze Bekanze Maha BeKanze Radza Samudgate Soha In the Bhaiṣajyaguruvaidūryaprabharāja Sūtra, the Medicine Buddha is described as having entered into a state of samadhi called “Eliminating All the Suffering and Afflictions of Sentient Beings.” From this samadhi state he spoke the Medicine Buddha Dharani.[1] namo bhagavate bhaiṣajyaguru vaiḍūryaprabharājāya tathāgatāya arhate samyaksambuddhāya tadyathā: oṃ bhaiṣajye bhaiṣajye mahābhaiṣajya-samudgate svāhā. The last line of the dharani is used as the Medicine Buddha’s mantra. Medicine Buddha Sutra, as a bodhisattva who made 12 great vows. On achieving Buddhahood, he became the Buddha of the eastern realm of Vaidūryanirbhāsa, or “Pure Lapis Lazuli”. The Twelve Vows of the Medicine Buddha upon attaining Enlightenment, according to the Medicine Buddha Sutra[1] are: To illuminate countless realms with his radiance, enabling anyone to become a Buddha just like him. To awaken the minds of sentient beings through his light of lapis lazuli. To provide the sentient beings with whatever material needs they require. To correct heretical views and inspire beings toward the path of the Bodhisattva. To help beings follow the Moral Precepts, even if they failed before. To heal beings born with deformities, illness or other physical sufferings. To help relieve the destitute and the sick. To help women who wish to be reborn as men achieve their desired rebirth. To help heal mental afflictions and delusions. To help the oppressed be free from suffering. To relieve those who suffer from terrible hunger and thirst. To help clothe those who are destitute and suffering from cold and mosquitoes. Arya Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, known as Kuan Yin is the bodhisattva who most embodies compassion. The name Avalokitesvara has its root meaning as “he who observes the sounds of the world”. The great vow of Avalokitesvara is to listen to the supplications, and cries for help from those in difficulty in the world and to provide them with aid, whatever expedient means are needed to help people most effectively. Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, an emanation of Amida Buddha’s compassion, is the “Regarder of the Cries of the World”. Sometimes referred to in the West as the Goddess of Mercy. Prayers for help arise from thousands of hearts, and thousands of prayers are answered by her vow of eternal compassion: Beings in Samsara, who sail the ocean of suffering, She will guide and deliver safely to the ultimate shore of enlightenment Om Mani Padme Hung ( Jewel of Enlightenment is in the Heart Lotus ) Om Mani Padme Hung Think: May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness, which is virtue. Om Mani Padme Hung Pray: May all beings remain free from suffering and the causes of suffering, which are non virtue and delusion. Om Mani Padme Hung Wish: May all beings remain unseparated from the sacred joy and happiness, that is totally free from sorrow. Om Mani Padme Hung Pray: May all beings come to rest in the boundless, all-inclusive equanimity beyond attachment and aversion. Om Mani Padme Hung Affirm: May all beings be happy, content, and fulfilled. Om Mani Padme Hung May all be peaceful in harmony and at ease. Om Mani Padme Hung May all be protected from harm, fear, and danger. Om Mani Padme Hung May all have whatever they want, need, and aspire to. Om Mani Padme Hung May all be healed and whole again. Om Mani Padme Hung May this planet be healed and whole again. Om Mani Padme Hung May all beings awaken from their sleep of illusions and be liberated, enlightened, and free. Om Mani Padme Hung May all realize their true spiritual nature and thus awaken the Buddha within. Om Mani Padme Hung May all equally enjoy, actualize, and embody the innate Great Perfection. Om Mani Padme Hung Om Mani Padme Hung Om Mani Padme Hung Om Mani Padme Hung Om Mani Padme Hung

  6. Agnes Hall says:

    Dear Mr President,

    As an invalid I can’t do much, but I can follow what’s going on in the world. You promised to keep on saving our Whales and Dolphins. Most of all the whales who live in the Southern Ocean. You promised not to lift the Moratorium of no Whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary where Japan has been killing protected whales under the guise of Science.

    Please Mr. President, don’t go back on your word you made in your maiden speech! I like the Whales and Dolphins, yet you agree to the slaughter of these magnificent animals which Japan slaughters every year and Norway and Iceland in the Northern Hemisphere. Don’t let these Marine mammals have another year of uncertainty for their life. They are intelligent animals who love humans. Should we turn on them because of that trust?

    Australia does scientific research on whales but doesn’t have to kill one whale for that AND they choose the males whereas Japan will kill calf with mother which was against the IWC’s ruling. If Australia can do it in a way that the whale doesn’t feel anything why can’t every country do that? Why has America got to go with the New Ruling of Commercial Whaling? Mr. President, I believe this ruling is wrong and back Australia and New Zealand who go against the Commercial Whaling, please back these countries with American’s wishes. The American people don’t want to see the country go backwards with the backing of Commercial Whaling.

    Please, I beg of you, keep your inaugeral promise and STOP the slaughter of Whales in the Southern Oceans Sanctuary.

    Thank you

  7. Ray Bell says:

    I am encouraged by the ceaseless work of Animal Legal Defense Fund to affect a moritorium against whaling worldwide with no exceptions.

  8. Laurie H says:

    I am looking forward to the day when ALL animals will have the rights that they so richly DESERVE! I only wish to live to see the day, when animal suffering will become a thing of the past. Humans do NOT have the right to ABUSE,USE, or EXPLOIT them and the sooner this becomes LEGAL, the better. Commercial Whaling must END and I want our President to keep his word.~

  9. Vicki says:

    I’m so sorry to hear that President Obama would consider this ridiculous proposal. As mentioned in the article, I watch “Whale Wars” from time to time and am saddened that the Japanese, especially, would consider the destruction of the most magnificent creatures on earth.

    Unfortunately, I have to say this to the ALDF and those of you who voted in the Presidential election of 2008: I’ll bet my bottom dollar that you sent money to Obama’s campaign and then voted for a man who couldn’t organize a cardboard box. A different take on an old saying: “You get who you vote for”.

    I truly pray that the whales win this war.

  10. Gail Calhoun says:

    I tried to sign the petition for animal abusers to suffer a sign up as other criminals do, as they should- but found this not possible. The site asked for my zip and would not accept it.It couldn’t find my address. I was stuck not able to sign the pledge! Maybe this site or that part of it needs a fix up. I mailed my donation in Gail

  11. Debbie Green says:

    First Wolves, now Whales!! What the hell is wrong with him?? It makes me sick to think I voted for him!! I voted for him, and particularly, Biden because of his excellent record for animal rights! We all know that all bets would have been off if Palin got in there. I just don’t get it! I am at the point that I don’t want to vote anymore. I am sick of the damn lies, a bunch of idiot politicians that don’t do anything they say they will. I will proudly sign my name to this comment!!!

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