On Sunday, February 19, while in Mexico for a G-20 Foreign Ministers meeting, Secretary Clinton, a few of our colleagues, and I went whale-watching in Guerrero Negro, Mexico. We got up-close -- at times they were right up against our boat -- with a school of Eastern Pacific gray whales. These are majestic creatures. Adult gray whales weigh between 30 and 40 tons and can live up to 80 years. Remarkably, gray whales migrate more than 10,000 miles each fall from their feeding grounds off Alaska to the warm waters of Mexico to mate and give birth.
By the mid-twentieth century, largely due to unregulated and poor management of the commercial whaling industry, populations of large whales became severely depleted. In response, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) established a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. This action led to the recovery of many whale populations. In fact, the Eastern Pacific gray whales we saw in Mexico were de-listed from the U.S. Endangered Species list in 1994 because their population had sufficiently re-bounded. Despite some successes, many species of whales remain at risk, this is why the United States firmly supports the continued moratorium on commercial whaling. And that's why we are deeply disappointed by the actions of certain governments which have found ways to avoid the ban.
It's important to note, however, that the moratorium applies specifically to commercial whaling. The IWC grants quotas for subsistence whaling by indigenous groups (e.g., in Greenland, Russia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United States). In the United States, subsistence whaling is primarily done by Alaskan Natives. They harvest approximately 40-50 bowhead whales per year, which provides approximately 60% of their annual protein needs. Whales and whaling are an important part of the Alaskan Native culture, going back thousands of years. The IWC's Scientific Committee has determined that these hunts, and those by other indigenous communities, are sustainable. As a result, the United States will seek renewal of our subsistence whaling catch allowance at the July IWC annual meeting in Panama.
Whale conservation is not only the right thing to do, it also stimulates economic growth. A study by the IWC estimated that 13 million people went whale watching globally in 2008. These eco-tourists spent nearly $2.1 billion and supported 13,000 jobs across hundreds of coastal regions worldwide, including in Mexico where we viewed the gray whales. I'm delighted to see an industry evolve from commercial whaling to commercial whale watching because it gives everyday citizens a stake in their natural resources, thereby strengthening support for global conservation measures.
Our whale-watching excursion was aptly timed as a side-event during the G-20 Foreign Ministers meeting because conservation efforts for whales, tigers, great apes, and numerous other animal species must be international to be successful. Animals -- marine or otherwise -- do not confine themselves to national boundaries. It's vital that all governments -- including those in the G-20 and others -- take ownership and pride in their biodiversity and ecosystems, and live up to their responsibilities both moral and legal. All of the ministerial officials who went whale-watching were grateful to Mexico for organizing the event and inspiring all of us to take a personal interest in the conservation of whales and other marine species.
Editor's Note: This entry appeared first on the Huffington Post.