The illegal killing of a gray whale off the coast of Washington state earlier this month by five members of the Makah Nation caused a public outcry, and justifiably so. No one in this country has the right to unilaterally decide to kill a whale without a permit.
As we learned this week, the numbers of gray whales left on Earth are nowhere near what they once were. Stanford University researchers report that their historic populations were around 100,000, three to five times larger than previously believed. The current population estimate of 22,000 eastern Pacific gray whales is actually a fraction of the pre-whaling levels. And that population is increasingly stressed.
There is new evidence that gray whales are now thin and starving, possibly a result of changes in the oceans resulting from global warming and overfishing. This is ominous news for the health of the whales, and our oceans as well.
It has been 25 years since the international community agreed to a moratorium on commercial whaling. There is no question that this major conservation achievement saved many whale species, including gray whales, from the brink of extinction. However, in the past decade, there has been steady erosion in the protection of the world's great whales. This is of concern not only because whales are special creatures that generate awe and wonder but also due to the many roles they play in the ocean ecosystem as predators and prey.
Fortunately in this country we have laws against the action taken by these five individuals who decided that "the time was right" for the Makah to resume whale hunting.
Although the federal government has granted the Makah a permit to kill whales in the past, this time there was no permit. The Makah leaders have stated that they will do the right thing and prosecute these hunters under tribal law. The U.S. government must also prosecute them under federal law, and reject the Makah's request for a permit to kill whales.
The situation outside U.S. waters is much worse. Currently, too many nations exploit loopholes in the international rules that ban commercial whaling. Only in extremely limited circumstances are whales permitted to be killed, such as when they are needed to feed communities with limited sources of food.
And yet more than a thousand whales are killed annually because whalers exempt themselves from the moratorium on commercial whaling. Their actions are no different from those of the five Makah hunters. They are in open defiance of the rules against hunting.
For many years the whaling nations by and large abided by the rules and took only a minimal number of whales. However, beginning in the late 1990s, the world's few remaining whaling nations decided to defy the intent of law by exploiting loopholes in the moratorium and began large-scale industrial whaling operations. As a result, whale hunting has escalated at an alarming rate.
And little is being done about it. Powerful nations including the United States refuse to use their diplomatic clout to hold these whaling nations accountable for their actions.
The world's whales deserve better protection than they are getting now. What is lacking is the resolve to abide by and enforce the global regulations on whaling.
The international body that governs whaling, the International Whaling Commission, is a weak institution with no enforcement capability. Its feckless commercial whaling "ban" and purported "sanctuaries" afford whales no protection from whalers who feel it is their right to kill these majestic and sentient creatures where and when they choose. And with half the commission in an alliance with the whalers, this lawless behavior is allowed to continue.
We need to reform the International Whaling Commission so that international laws provide whales the same standing that the gray whale killed this past weekend has under U.S. law. The United States must step in and lead the nations of the world in this endeavor.
Only then will the world's whales will be safe from lawless hunters.