The Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs cooperates with other federal agencies to participate in a number of efforts to conserve marine biodiversity. OPA also works closely with U.S. government agencies and indigenous subsistence communities to develop and coordinate U.S. policy relates to the international conservation of marine mammals, notably whales and polar bears. U.S. policy on marine mammals is guided by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. Many of the world’s marine mammals cross international jurisdictions, therefore bilateral and multilateral arrangements have been developed to manage these populations. OPA also works on marine protected areas, such as efforts to implement cooperation related to the world’s largest MPA in Antarctica’s Ross Sea.
International Whaling Commission
The United States is an active member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Established in 1946 under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the Commission is responsible for “the proper conservation of whale stocks and orderly development of the whaling industry.” In 1986, the Commission established a moratorium on commercial whaling, which sets all commercial harvest quotas at zero. Despite this moratorium, some countries still engage in commercial whaling activities. Norway and Iceland both conduct commercial whaling activities under an objection and a reservation to the moratorium, respectively. In December 2018, Japan announced that it was withdrawing from the IWC and would resume commercial whaling in its waters starting in July 2019.
Importantly for the United States, the IWC authorizes whaling for subsistence purposes. Aboriginal subsistence whaling is conducted by the indigenous communities from Denmark (Greenland), the Russian Federation, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United States. Subject to domestic legal requirements, the United States works with the indigenous communities in Alaska and Washington State to ensure that IWC established quotas meet their cultural and subsistence needs.
The Commission is comprised of 88 member governments and meets biennially to review the status of whale stocks and adopt conservation measures, as appropriate.
The Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs participates in the formulation of U.S. goals, objectives, and strategies in the IWC and leads efforts within the IWC on behalf of the United States; the Secretary of Commerce has the responsibility of discharging the domestic obligations of the United States under the IWC.
Iconic symbols of the Arctic, the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is found in the five Arctic States (Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States). The worldwide population is estimated to be about 26,000, 60% of which are found in Canada. This total population is distributed among 19 sub-populations, two of which occur in the United States: the Southern Beaufort Sea stock, shared with Canada and the Bering/Chukchi Sea stock, shared with Russia.
Polar bears are dependent on sea ice for hunting, breeding, and in some cases denning. Due to loss of sea ice habitat because of global climate change, the United States listed the polar bear as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, providing significant protections to the polar bear. Polar bears are hunted for subsistence purposes in the United States, Canada, Greenland, and Russia (however, the Russian Federal Government has not yet authorized the subsistence harvest).
There United States engages internationally on polar bears primarily through two international agreements. The 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears ( “Range States Agreement) calls for cooperation and consultation among the countries on research involving conservation and management of polar bear populations. The Agreement also allows for subsistence hunting by indigenous populations.
The bilateral Agreement on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population entered into force on September 23, 2007. The Agreement establishes a commission comprised of representatives of the United States and Russian Government as well as the indigenous populations dependent on polar bears. The Commission meets annually and establishes a sustainable harvest level for the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population, which is evenly divided between the United States and Russia.