US Makes Few Gains at World Whale Meeting

FOR years, powerful members of the International Whaling Commission, including the United States, have sought to reduce the number of whales killed around the world other than those taken by aboriginal tribes. They haven't had much luck.

They tried again last week at the IWC's annual meeting in this sun-dappled city. The result: some modest successes, but no major shift toward a whaling-free world.

``There really has not been a moratorium on whaling,'' says William Evans, the US delegate to the meeting.

But, he adds, ``There will be fewer whales taken this year.''

What Mr. Evans is referring to is the number of whales killed each year in the name of science.

Although a moratorium on commercial whaling has been in effect since 1986, a loophole in the agreement allows the mammals to be killed for research purposes.

Three countries - Japan, Norway, and Iceland - have consistently taken advantage of it.

This year, as in years past, antiwhaling interests criticized the practice, arguing that it isn't necessary to kill the behemoths to study them.

Resolutions urging the three countries to reconsider their programs were passed. But the nations are under no obligation to follow the resolutions - and they probably won't.

Japan, which maintains that the scientific kills yield data on such things as the age and range of whales, says it will take at least 400 Minke whales next winter. Norway plans to kill 20.

Iceland, however, softened its stance a bit: It reduced the number of fin whales it will take this year from 90 to 68. While US officials saw the move as a step forward, environmentalists were less impressed.

On hand to press their case that the killing of all marine mammals should stop, the protesters, who view scientific whaling as nothing but commercial hunting in disguise, note that Iceland took the same number of whales last year.

``It was no concession at all,'' says Campbell Plowden of the environmental group Greenpeace.

On other issues, the antiwhaling victories were perhaps more clear cut. The IWC, for instance, extended the sanctuary for whales in the Indian Ocean another three years.

The international body also put off for another year a request by Japan to allow residents in four coastal villages to be given emergency relief from the moratorium.

Under the ban, Alaskan Eskimos and certain aboriginal tribes are allowed to hunt whales for subsistence and cultural reasons.

Japan had come to the meeting hoping to win support for a new category of exemption for the villages, which it claims are economically and culturally dependent on whaling.

BUT an International Whaling Commission committee couldn't decide on the new category, so the Japanese instead pushed for an emergency allocation.

The IWC put off the request, however, as it has in years past - which brought a sharp rebuke from the Japanese delegate.

``A lot of suffering has been created under this moratorium by the commission,'' said Kazuo Shima, who warned that his government would take ``appropriate measures'' as a result.

That is likely to mean the increased killing of small cetaceans, such as dolphins and porpoises, which Japan has already been doing in the wake of the whale ban.

Despite the barbs over the emergency exemption, the meeting was less acrimonious than ones in the past. Resolutions were softer. No one was threatening to pull out of the voluntary IWC, as has happened before.

``The positions were not as extreme,'' says one US official.

This tone worries environmentalists, though. They were here en masse all week - toting placards (``Don't Research Whales to Death''), holding candlelight vigils, and floating 30-foot inflated replicas of humpback whales.

They worry that the more cooperative spirit may indicate weakening political resolve among the nations that support the moratorium, just as it is ready to come up for formal review next year.

On the other hand, new figures were released by the IWC that could buttress the arguments of those seeking to strengthen the ban. They showed that the populations of some whale species, including the giant blue, were lower than originally thought.

A comprehensive assessment of various whale species is currently under way.

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