It seems to have become a common dogma in many countries that whaling is evil, even when it is for food, and that any people who hunt whales are benighted almost beyond redemption. However, there is another side of the story.

The International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee in 1981 has made several estimates of the population of Northwest Pacific sperm whales, with the lowest or minimum figure by British scientists indicating the presence of 210,000 mature sperm whales in the area. The present Japanese catch is 890 whales, or 0.4 percent of the total mature whales. Catches at this level do not endanger the survival of the sperm whales and provide a large margin for replenishment of the stock. Japanese whalers carefully follow the scientific recommendations to make sure that the various species are in no danger of becoming extinct or seriously reduced. There is no scientific basis in the The Post's editorial assertion ("Save the Whales," Nov. 28) that the sperm whale stock is endangered.

The IWC did not decide to ban sperm whaling totally, as has been reported. It left the catch quota in the Northwest Pacific in abeyance, due to the rather wide gaps in the population estimates. Japan, in filing objections to the delay in determining a quota, and to the new IWC requirement for using explosive harpoons on small minke whales, did not do so in defiance of the IWC. It did so only as a precautionary measure to provide for the contingency that the new, explosive harpoons may not be ready for use before the next whaling season, and for the possibility that the IWC may fail to agree on any catch limits before the whaling season opens next fall.

As regards the ethics of whaling, it is easy for Americans, with their vast expanse of land and their great surpluses of meat and grains, to regard whale meat and whaling with distaste. When Americans did hunt whales, it was only for their oil, not for food. But in Japan, which has very little arable space, the sea has always been the main source of protein, and whales have provided valuable meat for Japanese for many centuries.

This does not mean that Japanese are any less sensitive than Americans to animal life, but they do draw the line at regarding whales as near-human. Whales probably enjoy more protection from man than any other form of wildlife, and commercial whalers pose no threat to the continued existence of any of the world's whale species. While Japan probably could survive without whale meat, it nonetheless does have a strong interest in retaining some supply as a source of protein in a country that depends on imported food for 50 percent of its diet, and whaling is an irreplaceable means of livelihood for some communities.

It does not seem entirely appropriate for non-whaling countries to tell people who have long caught whales for food that they must no longer do so because this offends their ethics. If the whales were truly in danger, it would be different, but the IWC has indicated they are not. We believe that Japanese attitudes toward whales as a food source deserve to be respected as much as some environmentalists' pronouncements that whales should not be hunted at all.