OVER THE YEARS, the International Whaling Commission has been steadily and often heatedly criticized for its lack of zeal in protecting the world's remaining whales. Rather than stopping the international whale hunt - and the resulting depletion - the commission all but supplied the harpoons to keep it going. Some of the criticism apparently had its intended effect, because earlier this year the commission met in Australia and agreed to lower next season's whale quota from approximately 28,000 to 18,000. Significantly, the commission issued a zero quota on bowhead whales. One of the most endangered of all the leviathans, the bowhead is now hunted only in Arctic waters off Alaska.

That might have been an upbeat chapter in an otherwise sad and bloody tale, except that a group of Eskimos - about 3,000 Inuits - protested that hunting bowhead whales is a part of their culture, and a necessary part because of the food from the whale carcasses.In addition, the Eskimos claim that the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 exempts them from the restraints against killing whales. Thus, the Eskimos' involvement means that what was once a question only of protecting an endangered species now includes - like so many other things these days - the issue of human rights. At the moment, the Carter administration is deciding whether to issue an objection to the commission's agreement on a zero kill for the bowhead, and thereby let the Eskimos continue their whaling, or to stand with the agreement.

For several reasons, we think the second option is sounder. The issue with the Eskimos has more to do with human exploitation than with human rights. According to Marion Edey of the Council on Environmental Quality, in 1976, 48 bowheads were killed and harvested, compared with 43 struck and lost. In the 1977 spring hunt, 26 whales were killed and harvested, compared with 79 struck and lost. This is a stunning rise from earlier years. The Eskimos' exemption from the law doesn't hold when a species is declared depleted - a declaration the National Marine Fisheries is in the process of making. The exemption also does not allow wasteful killing. As for preserving the culture and traditional ways of the Eskimos, little in the current methods of slaughter is from the past. Shoulder guns with explosive charges that blow up inside the whale are anything but carryovers from yesteryear. Tom Garrett, a Deputy U.S. Whaling Commissioner, has pointed out that because of ice and weather conditions, Eskimo villages have had several years in this century in which no whales were taken and the culture neither suffered nor vanished.

Without serious evidence that a zero kill for one season would impose severe hardship on the natives, the issue shifts to the credibility of the U.S. position on whaling. For years, we have portrayed ourselves as the world's conscience in whaling matters. For the United States suddenly to go soft when its own interests are involved - even when serious questions are raised about the legitimacy of those interests - is to invite a harsh supicion of double standards. It is also to invite a return to the old ways of the whaling commission, when any nation could dissent with impunity and head out to the open sea for whales.

President Carter has repeatedly expressed his conservationist views about saving the whales. Not to go along with the commission at this moment, when reforms are being made, would suggest that expediency is more important than commitment.