It won’t save the whales

The moratorium on commercial whaling that took effect in 1986 has been one of the most successful international agreements in the conservation world. The number of whales killed each year instantly plummeted from 38,000 to between 1,000 and 2,000. Whale populations began to rebound. It brought about a new global consciousness — and conscience — about whaling.

Now a panel of the International Whaling Commission is proposing to effectively suspend that moratorium for 10 years. Its goal is a noble one: to bring the three rogue whaling nations into a pact that will place an agreed-upon limit on their catches, as well as to better monitor their whaling and ensure more humane hunting practices. These are all good ideas. Unfortunately, the proposal gives away more than the whaling commission would get. It says in essence that all a nation has to do to escape the commission’s official disapproval is refuse to cooperate long and hard enough.

Supporters of the proposal say it would save at least 5,000 whales over the 10 years. The actual number would be somewhat smaller. That’s because the three whaling nations — Japan, Iceland and Norway — currently set their own limits, which are far higher than those in the proposal, but don’t actually catch as many whales as they say they will. Anti-whaling activists expect that pattern to continue. Demand for whale meat is declining; Japan’s whaling operation survives only with the help of large government subsidies. If the three countries continue to catch whales at their current rate, the number of whales saved by the proposed agreement would be closer to 3,000.

Japan claims that it doesn’t hunt whales commercially at all. The 1,000 or so whales it has killed each year for the last several years are hunted under a loophole that allows scientific whaling, though whale experts have seen through that cover for years. Iceland and Norway simply claim a legal “objection” to the moratorium, under another loophole, and take about half as many whales as Japan. Together, the annual whale hunt by the three nations adds up to about 1,600 whales, a number that is up significantly from the 1990s but that has remained roughly steady for the last several years. The first five years of the proposed agreement would reduce that by about 200 whales a year; then the number would drop by another 200 whales for the remainder of the agreement. What would happen after the 10 years is anyone’s guess.

We’re not adamantly opposed to the idea of any and all whale hunting. Subsistence whaling by indigenous groups in Alaska and elsewhere kills more than 150 whales a year. Some cultures do not find the use of meat and other whale products any more objectionable than most people find the production of lamb for consumption. It’s not the commission’s job to pass moral judgment on whether whales are too intelligent or beautiful to hunt; rather, it must take a strong stand on ensuring healthy whale populations, and this proposal fails on several fronts.

The overall reduction in the whale hunt is based on politically negotiated numbers, not on scientifically derived catch limits. Its quotas come close to numbers that these rogue nations probably would catch anyway. That’s like the tale in the book “The Little Prince” involving a monarch who can make the sun set — but only at the time when it would do so anyway. The proposed pact would continue to allow hundreds of whales to be taken in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary around Antarctica, an environmentally sensitive preserve that was agreed upon in 1994 — with Japan objecting. It continues to allow the hunting of endangered fin whales, albeit in small numbers. Worse, it implies that the 88 member nations of the International Whaling Commission are so weak in their resolve that they will legitimize rogue whaling if whaling countries put up strong resistance. That’s the wrong message to send to other nations that might consider striking out on their own.