By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; A01
"Save the Whales!" One of the earliest slogans of the environmental movement, it galvanized a generation of conservationists. Awe-inspiring behemoths that breached the ocean's waves and could communicate with one another underwater, whales inspired public support in a way endangered snail darters and obscure plants never could.
And to a significant extent, the campaign worked: A quarter-century after the first anti-hunting regulations were approved, several whale populations have stabilized and a few seem to be rebounding.
Now, in light of that comeback, delegates from around the world will decide in the coming weeks if they should condone commercial hunts once more.
The International Whaling Commission will consider a controversial plan seeking a truce in the battle that has raged since a global whaling ban took effect in 1986. Three nations -- Japan, Norway and Iceland -- have defied that moratorium, insisting on the right to use the oceans as they always have, and in recent years have expanded their whale hunts.
The compromise being considered would give approval for commercial hunts by those three nations in exchange for an overall cut in the number of whales being killed each year.
While the United States has yet to formally endorse the compromise -- the details of which will be made public on April 22, Earth Day -- U.S. commissioner to IWC Monica Medina said it may represent the best chance of bringing the ongoing whale hunt under control: "It's a global problem, and needs global solutions."
But the negotiations have infuriated some environmentalists and scientists, who say policymakers are placing whales at risk at the very moment when some are beginning to recover. "It's great to be showing success, but should we be planting the flag and saying, 'We're there'?" asked Howard Rosenbaum, who directs the ocean giants program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "We're not out of the woods yet."
Warmer and more acidic seas attributed to climate change threaten to disrupt feeding and breeding patterns, and other threats from ocean noise and offshore energy development are rising.
So scientists and policymakers are at a crossroads: Have the whales been, mostly, saved? Is the battle over, or has it just changed focus?
While recent estimates are not precise, several whale populations are on the mend. Bowhead whales off Alaska number somewhere between 8,200 and 13,500, according to the IWC, and are on the rise. Eastern Pacific gray whales, taken off the endangered species list in 1995, reached a peak of between 21,900 and 32,400 in 1999 before experiencing a modest decline. Blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere number between 1,150 and 4,500, and are increasing.
Centuries ago many of these whale populations were much larger, but that was before commercial hunting began. The three historic heydays of whaling were the killing of right whales in the Southern Hemisphere in the late 1700s; sperm whale hunting in the mid-1800s off New England; and global industrial whaling in the mid-1900s, which peaked when hunters killed nearly 80,000 whales in 1960.
But in 1967 Roger Payne and Scott McVay recorded humpback whales singing, a discovery that transformed public attitudes and galvanized a global movement to halt whaling altogether.
"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.