Save the Whales

Monday, June 5, 2006

LIKE MANY Americans, you might think the world had already saved the whales. The cause that galvanized so many people's environmental consciences, after all, produced an international ban on whaling fully two decades ago. Yet whaling continues. In fact, it's increasing. Japan, Norway and Iceland never stopped hunting whales -- albeit for a time in far smaller numbers than before the international agreement to stop whaling went into effect in 1986. Lately those numbers have been creeping up, and this year they are almost doubling to nearly 2,400 whales. What's more, Japan is no longer limiting itself to relatively plentiful minke whales but is once again hunting the decimated populations of fin and sperm whales and plans to begin killing humpback whales as well. In 2008, Japan and Norway plan to kill 3,215 cetaceans.

The reemergence of whaling could get a considerable boost this month at, of all places, the meeting of the International Whaling Commission -- the body that supervises the supposed ban on commercial hunting. Japan has aggressively sought pro-whaling allies, and it now has close to a majority of votes. While it would take more than a majority to undo the ban, it would significantly relieve pressure on those countries that flout the ban if a majority of the commission didn't care.

The arguments for continuing to kill these animals -- large, intelligent mammals already driven to the brink of extinction and under pressure from other human activity -- border on the frivolous. Japan and Iceland, exploiting a yawning loophole in the moratorium, claim to be doing scientific research, though the meat gets sold commercially. All three countries talk about whaling as part of their cultural heritage. It's not clear how much anti-whaling countries can really do to stop the flouting of the ban. But they must not sit by while one of the most important achievements of international environmentalism unravels completely.

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