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.
Some species have made gains in recent years: Minke whales, for example, now number in the several hundred thousands. That is the species whale hunting countries generally pursue: Iceland killed 39 minke whales in the past year, Norway took 639, and Japan harpooned 853 minke and 10 endangered fin whales.
Both Japan and Iceland hunt whales under the "scientific research" exception allowed under the IWC, while Norway has rejected the international moratorium altogether and hunts commercially. Whatever the commission decides, Japan has announced that it plans to increase its take and start hunting humpbacks, as well, next season, while Norway plans to nearly double its minke whale catch.
William Aron, a professor of ocean science and fisheries at the University of Washington who represented the United States at the IWC's meeting in 1977, said the moratorium reflected political beliefs, not scientific necessity.
"The moratorium was not proposed as a moratorium forever and ever," Aron said. "It was not reached out of science. It was reached because there were a lot of people who believed the propaganda that these were special animals and, no matter what happened, they should not be killed."
Yoshimasa Hayashi, a member of Japan's House of Councillors who comes from the whaling village of Shimonoseki, said that Japan is killing more whales but that the animals' resurgence justifies it.
"Maybe we are catching those numbers, it's true, but the recovery numbers are huge," Hayashi said in an interview. "The Japanese people are wondering: Why are whales only focused on in this manner? Beef, pork, chicken are all animals; people eat them."
Proponents of whaling raise the cultural argument repeatedly, saying they should have the freedom to hunt whales as a matter of tradition. Halvard Johansen, a senior official at Norway's Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, said written accounts show that the Norse have hunted whales since the 900s.
"To be ruled by the cultural preferences of the Anglo-Saxon world would be very difficult," Johansen said in an interview.
But Wetstone -- whose group last month launched a series of anti-whaling subway ads in Washington, put up billboards in New York's Times Square and along Los Angeles's Sunset Boulevard, and ran television ads in seven cities -- rejected that line of reasoning.
"There are certain cultural norms, like cannibalism, that are in violation of our basic approach to maintaining our civilization and our natural world," Wetstone said. "If we cannot save them, it doesn't bode well for the rest of our natural world," he added, referring to whales.
As this month's meeting of the whaling commission approaches, advocates on both sides are working to round up as many votes as possible. Some environmentalists say the fishing aid Japan provides the small nations it has recruited to the commission influences their votes. Caribbean media reported in November 2001 that Japan gave $17 million to Antigua in exchange for support on whaling.
But Morishita denied any link, noting that countries such as India, Brazil and Peru receive aid from his country but oppose whale hunts. "If we were to try to connect the policy and the aid, they should be on our side, but they are not," he said, noting that the United States has brought its own allies, such as Israel, into the IWC. "It is simply not connected."
Anti-whaling countries are embarked on their own lobbying campaign. New Zealand's conservation minister was scheduled to meet last month with officials in Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands to try to persuade them to oppose any return to wide commercial whaling. Australia's minister for the environment is making a similar trip to several Pacific nations.
"All we have are arguments, strong arguments, but arguments may not be enough to win the day here," said Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand's IWC commissioner. "It would be a very big signal of a bad sort if the like-minded nations lost a majority on the commission. . . . We think the tipping point is very close."