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With some species rebounding, commission weighs loosening of ban

International policymakers and environmentalists are assessing whaling restrictions at a time when some whale populations have rebounded, but the affects of climate change, and the rise in ocean noise and offshore energy development continue to threaten the giant ocean mammals.

"The recordings worked because they have a very emotional impact on people who hear them -- I've actually seen people weep while listening to them," Payne recalled. "People began realizing this is a terrible thing that's happening to the largest animals that ever have lived on Earth."

Now, between 1,800 and 2,200 whales are killed every year. Japan claims a moratorium exemption for scientific purposes; Iceland and Norway have objected to the moratorium and conduct commercial hunts; and aboriginal groups in the United States, Canada, Russia, Greenland and St. Vincent and the Grenadines engage in subsistence hunting under an indigenous exception to the ban.

While no whale population has significantly deteriorated in the past few decades, several are still struggling. Just 130 or so western Pacific gray whales swim off the coast of Russia now -- compared with at least thousands, if not tens of thousands, in the past -- and they are still vulnerable to being caught in Japanese fishing nets and offshore energy projects. Even one of the populations that made major gains over the past few decades, the Southern right whale, is experiencing a sudden die-off. Since 2005, researchers have identified 308 dead whales in the waters around Argentina's Peninsula Valdes, an important calving ground, and 88 percent of the dead were calves less than three months old.

The survival of the North Atlantic right whale, which migrates along America's Eastern Seaboard and numbers between 300 and 400, may depend on the fate of one or two reproductive females. In places like Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Scituate, Mass., scientists and government officials do their best keep fishing gear from entangling the whales, ships from striking them, and the noise from ocean vessels from drowning out their calls to one another.

"Right now we're at a point in time where we can absolutely influence the survival of this species," said David Wiley, one of the sanctuary's marine mammal ecologists. "This is the time. This is the place to do this."

Dubbed the "urban whale" because its coastal swimming brings it into close contact with everything from liquefied natural gas tankers to lobster traps, these remaining right whales are vulnerable to a host of threats.

New research, using underwater buoys with recording devices, has shown the whales are in sanctuary much more often than scientists had realized. They've also determined that 70 percent of the space they had to communicate in during ancient times is now drowned out by the noise of ship traffic and other human activities.

"Really, what they're undergoing is an incredible degree of stressors in an environment that's only getting worse," said Leila Hatch, one of the sanctuary's marine ecologists.

Globally, however, the biggest threat facing large whales may be climate change.

Most indicators suggest this will create problems for animals that need to consume vast amounts of plankton and tiny crustaceans in order to sustain themselves. Increased carbon dioxide levels are making the seas more acidic, which makes its more difficult for small crustaceans to form their calcium-based shells. At the same time plankton blooms may occur earlier, which means food might not be available when the whales arrive to feed. And scientists are already seeing in warmer years that the right whales off Argentina are enjoying a lower rate of reproductive success.

"It's fairly clear it's not gong to be anything else but another big problem for them," said Mark Simmonds, international director of science for the British-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. In that context, many advocates question why nations like the United States would back a plan to reauthorize whale hunts. "Whales face more threats today than at any time in history," said Patrick Ramage, global whale program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "The last thing they need is a compromise agreement that seems to keep commercial whaling alive."

Setting the levels for such a hunt is particularly challenging. For decades the scientists at the IWC have refined a complex computer model to guide policymakers on how to theoretically set an annual catch that would be "a safe number," in the words of Greg Donovan, the commission's head of science. But in the end, Donovan emphasized, "you have a trade-off between total conservation and maximum yield. Where that trade-off is, is not a scientific decision. It's a societal decision."

And some scientists, such as Rosenbaum and Stanford University's Stephen R. Palumbi, say new genetic analyses suggest there used to be many more whales than researchers have assumed existed before widespread exploitation. These findings remain controversial, but coupled with the fact that researchers now realize whale species live and breed within separate populations despite their wide ocean ranges, it could mean that population increases in one region of the world cannot compensate for declines elsewhere.

Some scientists say the compromise proposal amounts to a political deal that ignores scientific imperatives. "They simply agree on arbitrary numbers for 10 years, and after 10 years they think about if they want new ones," said Justin Cooke, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's representative on the IWC's scientific committee.

And regardless of what number they choose, pro-whaling countries say they will resist any significant new limits on their right to hunt.

"Norway sees absolutely no reason why whales should be treated differently from other species in the marine ecosystem or, for that matter, other animals that are hunted," said Karsten Klepsvik, Norway's IWC commissioner, in an interview.

Amalie Jessen, Greenland's deputy minister for fisheries, hunting and agriculture, said any short-term deal "is only to postpone what has to be decided once in the future": whether managed whaling can come back for good.

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