Whaling Agency Faces a Possible Shift

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has put up anti-whaling billboards in New York's Times Square and on Los Angeles's Sunset Boulevard, as well as subway ads in Washington.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare has put up anti-whaling billboards in New York's Times Square and on Los Angeles's Sunset Boulevard, as well as subway ads in Washington. (International Fund For Animal Welfare)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

Japan and Norway, two nations that have refused to give up large-scale whaling despite widespread condemnation, are on the cusp of gaining control of the international commission that since 1986 has strictly limited whale hunting in an effort to rebuild the population of Earth's largest creatures.

The impending shift, which will be on display when the International Whaling Commission convenes on the island of St. Kitts for its annual meeting on June 16, has alarmed environmentalists and officials from countries that oppose commercial whaling, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand. They note that in recent years Japan has recruited at least 19 countries -- many from West Africa and the Caribbean -- to join the commission and support expanded whaling.

"Most Americans think the whales have been saved," said Gregory Wetstone, director of U.S. operations for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an advocacy group. "These populations cannot sustain the kind of pressure that industrial-scale whaling can bring."

In interviews, senior fisheries officials from half a dozen countries, including the United States and Japan, said the commission will face a decisive moment next month.

With 66 or so members -- the number shifts depending on which countries show up and pay their dues -- the body that has regulated whaling for more than 50 years may, for the first time, be narrowly dominated by countries that support expanded whale hunts. Though it would take a three-quarters majority to end the 20-year-old international moratorium, a simple majority could push for secret ballots on motions and resolutions on the issue, a step that could strengthen the hand of whaling nations.

A shift by the commission to a more pro-whaling stance, Wetstone said, could halt its conservation work and encourage Japan, Norway and Iceland -- which have already announced that they plan to increase their current catch of 2,395 whales a year to 3,215 by 2008 -- to expand their activities in the coming years, with other, smaller countries possibly joining the hunt.

"We're at a crossroads on whether the IWC can do the job it was set up to do, to really manage whales for sustainability and protect them," said William T. Hogarth, who directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service and serves as the chief U.S. delegate to the commission. "We are very concerned about whales. . . . There's not a lot of trust between the countries."

Officials from Japan, Norway and Iceland -- the only three countries that now hunt whales, in limited numbers -- argue they have the right to kill whales as long as the hunt is regulated. Just last week, five Japanese government research ships set out to hunt for 260 whales in northwestern Pacific seas. "The utilization would be directed by science, not our desire," said Joji Morishita, deputy director of the international affairs division of Japan's Fisheries Agency. He added that the commission is "facing a moment of truth -- either it collapses or brings back its business as originally intended."

No one questions that for more than 100 years, commercial whaling devastated whale stocks around the world, leaving many species in jeopardy of disappearing altogether. But conservation campaigns, books, recordings and the popularity of whale-watching tours have given the marine mammals a mythic status in the American psyche, and the United States now lists seven endangered species in domestic waters and one in foreign waters.

Blue whales, which are twice the size of the largest dinosaur that ever roamed the planet and swim in U.S. waters, numbered 250,000 in 1920 but have declined by 96 percent since then. Fin whales, which used to number 600,000, have declined by 92 percent.

And though the international community has put large-scale whaling on hold, a host of other technological developments still threaten whales. Federal marine specialists have linked the U.S. Navy's use of sonar to strandings of deep-diving whales in Hawaii and elsewhere, and other whales periodically become entangled in fishing nets or are hit by ships.

"They've been knocked back to a small percentage, in some cases to an unviable number, from their original numbers," said Roger Payne, the whale expert who first recorded the songs of humpback whales in 1968. "Whales today are under tremendous stress as a result of several types of human activity," said Payne, president of the Ocean Alliance advocacy group.

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