Don't throw away your old "Save the Whales" bumper sticker. The whales may need more help than ever now that Japan has gotten interested in doing "research" on them.

Most people concerned about the issue had grown relatively complacent in recent years, thinking that it was finally safe for whales to go back into the water. The International Whaling Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling has been in effect for two years, and while some nations still object to it, none is publicly planning to go whaling commercially in 1988.

However, the convention which created the IWC contains a formerly obscure loophole that permits IWC member nations to issue "special permits" to themselves to kill whales for "scientific research." Several nations, most notably Japan, have announced plans (or have begun) to implement "research" programs that would enable them in effect to carry on the commercial whaling they have abjured.

Judged even by the minimal standards of semantic honesty applied to international discourse, the "research" programs that have been advanced to date are fabrications that would add nothing significant to existing knowledge about whales, except perhaps to reveal at what point their stocks become irrevocably depleted. While there may in fact be scientific questions that can be answered only by lethal means, these proposals fall far from the mark.

Perhaps the most astonishing was a Japanese scheme, advanced last summer, to kill 50 large sperm whales and 825 smaller minke whales annually. The proposed location of the sperm whale hunt would have ensured the taking of only male "harem bulls" -- the most endangered age-sex class of an already endangered species. In the course of the IWC Scientific Committee's review of the proposal, the Japanese members revealed that their main interest was in the sperm whales' stomach contents (primarily squid), and more particularly in the stomach contents of the squid. It was never made clear why the Japanese couldn't simply catch squid to satisfy their curiosity, and it was noted that no squid biologist was named in the proposal.

The Scientific Committee, as presently chartered, does not approve or reject proposals. Until last month, its reports indicated only that "some" unspecified number of members felt one way, while "others" felt differently. Nevertheless, the reservations of "some" members about the Japanese proposal, as well as the South Korean and Icelandic "research" proposals, were sufficiently convincing that the IWC last June voted to recommend that South Korea and Iceland revoke their permits, and that Japan revise and resubmit its proposal. At the same meeting, the IWC also adopted a U.S. recommendation that the Scientific Committee review all future research proposals in light of several reasonable criteria, and that the IWC pass upon the committee's findings.

South Korea has since forsworn "research" whaling for 1987-88, which is not surprising in light of the sketchiness of its last proposal. (Indeed, Korea by last summer had not even published the data collected by a short "research" program the year before.) Iceland conducted a small "research" hunt this fall, in spite of the IWC's recommendation.

Under U.S. law, the secretary of commerce must "certify" countries whose activities "diminish the effectiveness" of the IWC Convention, an action which triggers at least a 50 percent reduction in U.S. fishing rights for such countries. In September, Commerce and Iceland cut a deal: Commerce would not certify Iceland for its 1987 take, nor for any future take under a research program that was submitted to the Scientific Committee, so long as the Scientific Committee's recommendations were carried out. (A 1986 Supreme Court decision involving Japan gives Commerce the discretion to reach such accommodations.)

A new Icelandic proposal might be expected. Even though IWC rules require that whales killed for research purposes be consumed "primarily" domestically, the high prices commanded in Japan by the 49 percent of Iceland's whale catch that is shipped there (at times under the label "frozen seafood") render the activity profitable.

Japan has abandoned its sperm whale gambit, but came back to the Scientific Committee this fall with a proposal to kill 300 minke whales as a "feasibility study" for the earlier plan to kill 825 of them a year. The Scientific Committee met in special session in December to evaluate the proposal, and for the first time the committee's report identified which scientists took which positions. As the report reveals, the vast majority of those scientists speaking out thought that the Japanese plan suffered from an inherent methodological flaw and that nonlethal research could produce the same results. On virtually every point, only Icelandic or Norwegian scientists were willing to join the Japanese scientists, and many times the Japanese stood alone. The report confirms what respected U.S. cetologist Roger Payne swore in an affidavit filed here last November: the Japanese proposal "is simply a subterfuge to ensure the continuation of commercial whaling."

Britain has asked the IWC to conduct an emergency mail poll of its membership on a resolution that Japan suspend its proposal until these scientific problems are resolved. Japan obviously does not intend to wait for the outcome, and several environmental groups will almost certainly sue Commerce if it does not certify Japan once the slaughter begins.

At stake is nothing less than the future of whaling, because strong domestic pressures could lead a number of countries to commence "research" whaling if Japan can get away with it. At the IWC, the United States has led the movement to ensure that "research" whaling is legitimate. It remains to be seen whether we have the nerve to back up here what we say there. The writer is a Washington lawyer. From time to time he does pro bono work for the North Wind Undersea Institute, a nonprofit organization active in marine education and protection.