Save the whales, again

THE ICELANDIC WORD HVALREKI means both “beached whale” and “jackpot.” This gives you a sense of how dearly the island country views its cetaceans. For centuries, whales have been a huge source of national and gustatory pride.

Nonetheless, Iceland has mostly adhered to a 2-decade-old global ban on commercial whaling. Until this week, that is, when the country announced that it would immediately resume hunting whales. Everyone from Greenpeace to the Bush administration has rightly condemned the move, and Iceland should reverse its irresponsible decision before doing irreversible harm.

But that alone won’t protect the world’s whales. For that, we’ll need one of two things: a real regulatory system for whaling that environmentalists and whale-hunting nations can agree on, or an outright worldwide ban on hunting whales. What this week’s news shows is that the current system -- an undefined temporary ban -- isn’t feasible anymore.

Whales have been an environmental icon for decades, ever since Greenpeace activists began storming whaling boats and concerned drivers started slapping “Save the Whales” stickers on their Volvos. At the time, whale populations had been decimated by centuries of hunting, and some of the mammal’s 37 species were at risk of extinction. In 1986, many countries, including the United States, signed on to an international ban.

But that was meant to be temporary. At the time, hunters and activists agreed to create a regulatory system for when stocks recovered. Environmentalists balked because they didn’t want legal whaling to return. Whale-hunting nations blinked because they didn’t want any permanent regulations.

The result? The fragile coalition behind the current ban is falling apart. At the International Whaling Commission, which protects whale stocks, the number of hunting advocates has been rising for years. At this year’s meeting in June, Iceland persuaded a majority of nations to support ending the ban but fell short of the three-quarters vote required.

As some species recover, albeit unevenly, countries such as Iceland and Japan are increasingly taking advantage of a loophole that allows hunting for “educational research.”

This year, they’ll kill up to 5,000 whales of all types (even endangered blues and humpbacks), and much of the meat will be sold.

If the world agrees that limited hunting of recovered stocks should be legalized (a big if), countries should draw up a clear regulatory system based on reasonable quotas according to region and species. If whaling is just too abhorrent for activists, they should lobby the United Nations for a permanent ban. Because letting the status quo unravel is a recipe for bringing back whaling, like it or not.