Progress for whales -- and people

The encouraging steps at the latest whaling conference are really about something bigger than whales. The whole international effort to agree on saving the whales is one more evidence of human advancement to put against the violence and depredation that hang on in the midst of civilized times. When you stop to think about it, how extraordinary that so many far-flung people should know or care about the lot of creatures remote from them in every way. Yet how natural. It is proving to be a characteristic of humanity to widen its circle of concern from family, friends, neighbors, strangers within the gate -- to every living thing.

No millenium has arrived, to be sure, even in the case of the whales with all the latter- day recognition of their mental and physical attributes. The long-sought moratorium on commercial killing has not been achieved. But it appeared to be in sight, perhaps only a few years away, after the ban on hunting sperm whales in most waters achieved at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Britain. One humane society official present went so far as to see the meeting as marking the end of commercial whaling as it has been known for the past quarter century.

Japan, the major remaining whaling country, cast the lone vote against the sperm whale ban. It could set back progress by defying the consensus, taking other whaling countries with it, and leaving the commission as a collection of nonwhaling nations. Yet there seems little reason, except last-ditch support of a faltering domestic industry, for Japan to make such an issue of whaling. Its traditional use of whale meat is now said to account for only .3 percent of national protein consumption, with most of the meat allocated to prisoners, schoolchildren, and animals. There are substitutes for the oil and other products taken from whales.

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The ideal outcome would be for Japan to stay in the commission and join in support for the evolving moratorium, which must continue to be the international goal. In this regard, it was good to see the Reagan administration dispel advance uncertainty about its position by backing a strong United States policy. With some 14,000 whales of various kinds still permitted to be killed each year the end of the slaughte r should not be delayed.

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