Could Lifting the Whaling Ban Save the Whales?

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Whalers cut open and inspect meat from a 35-ton fin whale, one of two fin whales caught off the coast of Hvalfjsrour, north of Reykjavik, on the western coast of Iceland

If you watch shows like Animal Planet's popular Whale Wars, which chronicles the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's battle against Japanese whalers in the Antarctic seas, you might think the world's whales are being saved.

But the reality is that over the past 20 years, the number of whales that have met death by harpoon has steadily grown, despite an international moratorium on commercial whaling that was passed in 1986. Three nations — Japan, Iceland and Norway — continue to engage in whaling, as do some aboriginal groups in the U.S. and a few other nations. Last year some 1,700 whales were killed. (About half those whales were taken by Japan under the guise of "scientific research," while Iceland and Norway maintain objections to the moratorium and hunt commercially.)

The whale trade also seems to have gone international, even though global trade is banned: in March, U.S. officials busted a Southern California sushi restaurant for secretly serving whale, and a recent study found evidence that Japanese-caught whale meat was being sold in South Korean markets.

Meanwhile, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) — an 88-nation body that officially oversees whaling — has become increasingly deadlocked on the issue. Whaling nations and their allies face off against countries like the U.S. and Australia that are pushing to reduce illegal whaling; the result is that enforcement action has been largely frozen at the international level. "The IWC needs to recover control over whaling activities," says Cristian Maquieira, chairman of the IWC. "And at the same time, we need to interrupt the growing trend toward increasing numbers of whales being caught over the past 20 years."

So in a last-ditch attempt to do just that, a number of antiwhaling countries, including the U.S., have proposed a compromise deal that would seek to reduce the total number of whales slaughtered while giving whaling nations a number of allowances — effectively permitting them to whale commercially, with potentially fewer hindrances. The details are still being debated, but the deal would involve a yearly quota of whale catches and would require whaling vessels to have international observers on board.

The IWC would also ensure that no new nations begin whaling and establish a DNA registry of whale meat in order to track whales being caught and sold illegally. In addition, a new whale sanctuary would be established in the south Atlantic, although no whaling actually occurs there now. Most important to the proposal's supporters, it would end the global deadlock on whaling and once again give the IWC control over the practice. "The U.S. is interested in this proposal," says Monica Medina, the No. 2 official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. representative to the IWC. "We think the moratorium isn't working. Many whales are being killed, and we want to save as many whales as possible."

On Thursday, April 22, the IWC released the final version of the new proposal, which includes new numbers on catch limits. The Japanese, for instance, would be limited to 400 minke whales annually in the southern Antarctic waters for the first five years of the 10-year deal; that number would be halved for the remaining five years. (In the 2008-09 season, Japan took more than 700 minkes in the southern waters.) At the same time, the Japanese would be allowed to take 120 minke whales commercially in its coastal waters — which is currently prohibited.

The IWC estimates that under the new proposal, several thousand fewer whales would be caught over the 10-year period than under the status quo, but the new catch limits are not yet set in stone and could rise as whaling nations continue hard negotiations. "These numbers aren't worth the paper they're printed on," says Patrick Ramage, the whale-program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "You can be certain they're going to go up."

Indeed, environmental activists have expressed deep concerns about the potential deal, noting that the proposal covers only the next 10 years and that nothing would stop whaling nations from resuming unlimited hunts once that period ends. Nor has a firm quota been set yet, although this week an official from the Japanese Fishery Agency announced that the country would reduce its annual quota for "scientific" whaling if it were allowed to resume commercial whaling along its coasts.

Worst of all, activists see the deal as effectively destroying the 24-year-old international moratorium on commercial whaling. "It's a miserable proposal," says Ramage. "It would reverse the emerging global consensus for whale conservation and inexplicably legitimize commercial whaling."

Even supporters of the proposal acknowledge that it is a compromise. "It's a proposal where the glass will be half full," says the IWC's Maquieira. "And I think that on the whole, it's not a bad deal for the whales." American officials point out that the moratorium as it stands now has no teeth and that moral suasion hasn't stopped whaling nations from hunting in greater and greater numbers. "We want to see real controls on the whaling that exists today and that continues to go on without international control," says Medina.

The proposal still needs to be passed by three-quarters of the IWC member nations at its annual congress in Morocco this June. At least one nation, New Zealand, a vehemently antiwhaling country, has expressed doubts that it could support the deal. Even if the proposal passes, it's hard to imagine that the emboldened hard core of antiwhaling activists — like Sea Shepherd — would simply lay down their arms. The whale wars won't be finished any time soon.