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Toxic or Not, Commercial Whaling Is Back on the Table

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The only global organization that has ever tried to control whaling may be on the rocks. The International Whaling Commission, says a U.S. official, "might just fall apart" at its June meeting in Morocco if delegates fail to reach consensus on overhauling the 63-year-old voluntary organization.

An IWC collapse would dissolve what's left of a legally unenforceable 24-year moratorium on commercial whaling, leaving Japan and fellow whalers to hunt freely.

The whales' edibility is a prime issue. Even if they could accept limited coastal commercial whaling, environmentalists are unwilling to let Japan continue whaling in the so-called Antarctic sanctuary, where whale meat is less tainted by mercury and other industrial wastes. The fact that it's risky to devour meat from northern whales and dolphins offers an incentive for Japan to give up the hunt--so long as the Antarctic is off-limits.

"We're trying to prove we've made the environment so toxic they can't eat them," explained Louie Psihoyos to an audience at New York's Asia Society weeks ago, after screening The Cove, his Academy Award-winning expose of how Japanese villagers trick, trap, and slay dolphins. Hunting in the South Atlantic provides Japan with whale flesh that at least meets national health standards for mercury intake.

Since there seems to be no way to stop Japan from killing cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), the Obama Administration is poised to compromise on commercial whaling in order to secure broader, more effective regulation by the IWC. If Japan chooses to cooperate, that is. Its recent success at thwarting protection for depleted, sashimi-bound Atlantic bluefin tuna during a UN wildlife session does not augur well.

IWC meetings are rancorous affairs at which neither side wins the three-quarters majority needed to change anything. Founded by whaling nations, the IWC was taken over by whaling opponents in the 1980s, since which time Japan has used foreign aid to recruit support from Caribbean and Asian countries. (Dominica dramatically reversed its pro-whaling position last year.)

A three-year effort to reorder the IWC (read the talking points from a recent working session) would create a South Atlantic Sanctuary and beef up conservation efforts to help the world's biggest mammals cope with oceanic pollution, ship strikes, climate change, and sonic disruption. In an historic compromise, countries that hunt whales could do so along their coasts--and Japan could continue to exploit Antarctic waters--but only under an enforceable legal agreement that the U.S. official said must unquestionably cap whaling "at a significant decrease" below the current fatality rate. "Numbers are key."

The IWC estimates that 1,700 to 1,900 whales have been slaughtered in each of the last five years, about six times the 1990 toll. Japan hunts whales for "scientific research," then sells the meat. Constraints are flatly rejected by Norway and Iceland, whose whaling is authorized by Minister of Fisheries--and Green Party leader--Steingrímur J. Sigfússon.

Japanese fleets kill some 1,200 whales a year, mostly in the Antarctic. Research in Japanese shops has found that packaged meat from whales--particularly those with teeth--has high levels of mercury contamination. (It is claimed that baleen whales such as the minke targeted by most of today's whalers have low levels of mercury because they consume smaller fish, but research has shown that northern minkes can carry plenty of mercury.)

Continuous high-level mercury exposure can snuff out brain cells and destroy human senses. It can render people deaf, numb, and blind. Exposure by hatmakers to it gave rise to the expression "mad as a hatter."

Japanese consumers aren't told much about the risks in their seafood. They're still trying to forget decades of mercury poisoning wrought by greed, duplicity, and bureaucratic obstruction. In 1956 residents and pets in Minimata City developed problems talking and walking. Some suffered convulsions. Three years later it was determined that they'd developed neurological problems from consuming fish and shellfish exposed to methyl mercury. A chemical plant continued dumping the heavy metal in local waters until 1968, by which time thousands had developed Minimata Disease.

Americans don't know much about mercury, either. Anti-vaccine activists attribute a host of medical problems to thimerosol--a preservative in flu shots that contains mercury--but they don't care much about the burning of coal, which has infused mercury in the earth's waters.

Last August, the U.S. Geological Survey announced that a 1998-2005 study of fish in 291 U.S. freshwater streams found every sample contaminated with mercury. "More than two-thirds of the fish exceeded the U.S. EPA level of concern for fish-eating mammals," with some of the highest levels recorded in relatively untouched Southern watersheds. (Read this USGS fact sheet.)

Still, reports Bloomberg, Wall Street analysts are recommending shares in Peabody Coal and dismissing stock in solar vendors, whose projects are losing government support worldwide. "Coal is burned to make about 41% of power worldwide and will increase its share to 44% by 2030," the International Energy Agency forecasts.

That means fish and cetaceans at the top of the food chain will accumulate ever-greater volumes of mercury. A New York Times probe in 2008 found that most tuna sushi in New York restaurants contained extremely high levels, much of it derived from Atlantic bluefin tuna, one of the world's greatest predators. Bluefin are being "annihilated" by overfishing,

There are less direct ways for mercury to enter our food chain. With few eager to consume the fruits of whaling, Iceland may be trying to turn its catch into industrial feed kibbles. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society noted recently that Iceland had been caught smuggling whale meat to Estonia and said government reports showed that tons of minced, processed whale meat might have reached Denmark's pork, salmon, and fur farms. Iceland's government swiftly said that it had merely mislabeled exports of fishmeal.

If the IWC reform should pan out, one innovation would create a DNA register so that meat from whales--such as that seized in a recent Malibu restaurant bust--could be traced to the ship that processed it.

Public comment on the proposed IWC reform closes April 1. So far conservation organizations have opposed any compromise. A Pew Environment Group statement at last June's IWC session indicated that Japanese coastal whaling might be accepted "only if it agrees to end scientific whaling and commits to respect internationally agreed whale sanctuaries."

As it happens, the U.S. commissioner for the IWC used to be a senior officer in Pew Environment Group. Monica Medina, U.S. Commissioner for the IWC since February, emphasizes that the U.S. hasn't yet taken a position. A formal proposal is due to be put forth as of April 22, either by a member nation or by working group Chairman Christian Maquieira of Chile, whose "mantra" has been the following: "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

"The point of the compromise is to close gaping loopholes that have let whaling increase tremendously in the last 10 years and bring it under international control," says Medina, an environmental lawyer who serves as the Commerce Dept.'s principal deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. "If there's to be a compromise, we need to say with confidence that we're not doing any harm to species or stocks."

That leaves the U.S. potentially tolerating Antarctic whaling. "It would be best if there were no whaling in the sanctuary but unfortunately whales are hunted there now--and it could possibly be many fewer under the compromise," says Medina. "I'd like to see a significant reduction in whaling everywhere. We want to make it more of a sanctuary."

In June, Medina will lead the U.S. delegation to a potentially climactic IWC session in Agadir, Morocco. She knows what she's up against: Medina was at the meeting in Qatar when Japan scuttled proposals to preserve bluefin tuna. If she cuts a deal with the whalers, environmentalists will be outraged. If she doesn't--and the IWC falls apart--more countries might opt to hunt in the Antarctic.

In any event, the seas seem certain to become more toxic. Whales will continue to be poisoned, then slaughtered, by their cousins at the top of the food chain: people.

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