By the time most people realized that whales were not oversize fish but warm-blooded mammals with large brains, sophisticated social structures and an elaborate language of squeals, clicks and low moans, it was nearly too late. The orgy of unrestrained whale hunting, which began in the 1600s and became industrialized in the 19th century, had already sent many species into serious decline. Environmental groups, fearing that the whales would become extinct, lobbied hard to bring the hunting and killing to a halt. In 1986 they came very close: the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted to prohibit whaling, allowing it only for scientific purposes or, in a handful of cases, such as among native peoples in Alaska and Greenland, to preserve ancient food-gathering practices.
But the treaty has proved all too easy to get around. Japan, Iceland and Norway, in particular, have slaughtered tens of thousands of whales in the past 20 years. The first two countries claim they are doing it for science, although much of the meat they take ends up on dinner tables. Norway doesn't even bother pretending. It openly flouts the IWC's rules.
Now Japan has upped the ante: at the annual meeting of the IWC last week in the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, the Japanese pushed through a resolution calling for a repeal of the whaling moratorium, declaring it "no longer necessary."
Fortunately for the whales, the resolution isn't binding. The vote was 33 to 32 in favor, but it would have taken a 75% majority to overturn the ban. For whaling opponents, however, the vote was an ominous sign of Japan's power over the IWC--and of its willingness to use strong-arm tactics and not-so-subtle bribery to get its way. Japan has reportedly showered more than $100 million in aid in recent years on island nations that it has persuaded to back its pro-whaling positions.
And though Japan's allies don't have the votes to overturn the whaling ban, it takes only a simple majority to make other changes--to take future votes on secret ballots, for example, so that nations can't be held accountable for their positions, or to exclude antiwhaling groups from IWC meetings. Indeed, Japan last week sparred once again with Greenpeace--the organization that agitated hardest for the original ban--until Japan was pressured to back off.