Iceland hunts whales. So does Japan. Same for Norway. That's leaves the U.S. in a muddle about how to respond to an outdated ban on whaling. Source: Australian Customs Service via Bloomberg News
Iceland hunts whales. So does Japan. Same for Norway. That's leaves the U.S. in a muddle about how to respond to an outdated ban on whaling. Source: Australian Customs Service via Bloomberg News

The U.S. Interior Department's certification this week that Iceland is undermining international anti-whaling efforts was no surprise, given that Icelandic vessels openly hunt whales. What remains a mystery is the penalties President Barack Obama might attach to the certification. Under U.S. law, he could impose economic sanctions on the NATO ally. He's more likely to repeat his 2011 order, instructing U.S. officials to push U.S. whaling views on their Icelandic counterparts, or give them the cold shoulder, whichever might work.

Neither will. That's because the U.S. defense of the moratorium is based on the false claim that a ban on commercial whaling is necessary to protect the creatures from endangerment. In fact, the zero-catch limit adopted by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 helped many whale stocks recover from decades of overhunting and under-regulation that threatened them with extinction. That is, the blanket ban, which was never intended to be permanent, has served its purpose.

Based on data showing some stocks were robust, Norway restarted commercial whaling based on very limited quotas in 1993 and Iceland did the same in 2006. Japan hunts a few hundred whales each year under the guise of scientific research in an effort to twist itself to fit the strictures of the outdated moratorium.

Rather than try to embarrass these countries for practices that don't embarrass them, it would be more productive for the Obama administration to push within the International Whaling Commission for implementation of an improved system for limiting catches designed in 1994 to prevent another overhunting calamity.

Of course, resistance to whaling goes beyond worries about endangerment. Many opponents believe it is wrong to kill whales per se, because they are such intelligent and magnificent creatures. However, that's a hard case to make in the context of international diplomacy. Exactly when is an animal too smart or lovely to eat? According to whom?

What's more, if it's plain wrong to hunt whales, there can be no room for exceptions. That would mean not only should there be a ban on commercial hunting but also subsistence hunting by aboriginal tribes, which is permitted under the 1986 treaty. Among the whales culled in the aboriginal catch are about 60 bowheads killed off the coast of Alaska each year by American Eskimos. You won't hear the Interior Department complaining about those.

(Lisa Beyer is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow her on Twitter @LisaBeyer3.)

To contact the author of this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.