As whale hunting slows, activists emphasize conservation, education

''Boycott Japanese, Norwegian, and Russian Goods,'' pleads a flyer being handed out in Boston by a conservationist group. ''Please Help Save the Whales! Public Pressure is Crucial Now.''

But even as such groups continue to press their campaigns here and abroad, the antiwhaling movement appears headed for a major change of course: from regulating whale kills to conservation and education.

On a boat off the Massachusetts coast, eminent scientists and naturalists bunch up along the starboard rail as they cruise toward three frolicking humpbacks in the water ahead. But their talk isn't of endangered species or boycotts of countries that defy the international ban on commercial whale killing.

Says Sir Peter Scott, the noted British conservationist and founder-chairman of World Wildlife Fund International: ''The one certainty is that we're on the winning side.''

Rather, the talk is about the effects of recreational whale watching, the ethics of keeping whales in captivity, and of anchoring oil drilling rigs offshore amid their traditional migratory routes.

''We now find ourselves wondering whether whales are just a source of meat and oil, or much more,'' Ray Gambrel, executive secretary of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), told reporters after a week-long conference in Boston earlier this month. ''What we have discussed here indicates a turning away from consumptive uses of whales. If the IWC agrees, it could change things for the next 25 or 30 years.''

The commission has some notable recent successes under its belt. All but four members - Japan, the Soviet Union, Norway, and Peru - have agreed to observe the total ban on commercial harvesting approved overwhelmingly last summer.

It is still ''very much too early'' to relax the whale protection effort, cautions John Lilly, director of the Human/Dolphin Foundation in Malibu, Calif. But there is general agreement that populations of certain species of whales are slowly rising.

In Japan, meanwhile, the importance of the whale as a source of protein in the diet is gradually lessening as supply falls farther behind demand, according to Masaharu Nishiwaki, a marine mammal biologist at Tokai University in Tokyo.

Only affluent Japanese can afford whale meat; but a member of the Japan Whaling Association noted at the Boston meeting that it's ''still a valued food resource.''

From the Japanese standpoint, Professor Nishiwaki says, ''A total ban [on commercial killing] cannot be.'' But antiwhaling forces would have met with greater cooperation sooner if they had been less forceful in their attacks on whaling nations, he argues.

Richard Ellis, a member of the American delegation to the IWC and one of the world's leading illustrators of marine mammals, agrees that some antiwhaling campaigners have been overzealous.

''There is a sense of absolution here - [a sense that] we have committed such terrible crimes against them in the past, we owe them something,'' he says. ''We are in a period of whale reverence in this country. What you have to understand is that this [cruise] has been almost a religious experience for some of these people.''

Although they savor their own whale watch, these experts worry that recreational observation of the animals by the public may have an adverse effect on their migratory and social patterns. One study reported at the Boston conference documented changes in swimming styles and pace when migrating gray whales off the California coast were accompanied by boatloads of curious people.

While whale watching on the Pacific Coast reportedly has leveled off, its growth along the Atlantic Coast continues - especially in New England.

At least eight commercial whale-watching enterprises operate in this region alone. One makes 32 trips a week between April and late October, carrying 70,000 passengers a year.

As for offshore oil exploration, Charles Mayo of the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., says: ''Our data base is so poor that I can't tell you what will or will not happen. But I take the position that when you don't know something, that's reason enough not to do it.''

Even meaningful human communication with whales has been brought closer by the decline in commercial killing, scientists say - almost as though this was the sign the whales were looking for. Some scientists think such communication may be less than five years away.

''It's not going to be a serious problem, given the capacity of human beings to break codes,'' says Sir Peter Scott. ''This means that all the sounds we get from whales will have to be correlated with knowledge of the activities of whales. Of course, it's one of the most exciting possibilities.''

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