"Commercial whaling will be banned within two years," predicts Alan Thornton of the environmental group Greenpeace. "But," he adds ruefully, "I've been saying that for four years."
His words suggest some of the uncertainty surrounding the opening July 21 of the 32nd International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference here. Observers are forecasting that the 24-nation body will again be unwilling to support a full-scale ban on the centuries-old but increasingly dishonorable business of hunting Earth's largest mammals.
The commission, made up of whaling nations like Japan, the USSR, and Iceland, as well as such anti-whaling countries as the United States, France, and the small but outspoken Seychelles, last year fought its way to an important agreement banning "factory" ships -- floating processing plants with both killing and refrigerating equipment aboard.
This year, says Tom Garrett of the US delegation, could also be "a watershed." On the agenda are Ahabesque struggles over aboriginal whaling (under which Alaskan Eskimos, for example, still take the now-endangered bowhead whales), the use of nonexplosive or "cold" harpoons (which environmentalists condemn as inhumane), and a moratorium on taking sperm whales (which looks possible if the stronger bans fail).
But voting patterns -- more crucial to establishing quotas than the scientific evidence about whale populations -- are unclear. "I've never seen such a degree of confusion," says Mr. Garrett. Part of the problem arises from issues lying just below the surface:
* Illegal imports. Japan, which imported some 27,000 tons of whale meat in 1979 and is the world's leading consumer, has admitted that some of it, disguised as Korean, came from Taiwan. Since IWC members can only buy from one another, and since Taiwan is not a member, Japan is under considerable pressure to police its industry more astutely.
* Exceeded quotas. The Soviet Union, Spain, Iceland, and Chile are under fire for breaches of quota and size regulations.
* Pirate whalers. Ships operating outside the IWC still make deep inroads into the cetacean populations.
At the apex of these issues is the question of enforcement. The IWC cannot compel compliance. It is hampered by threats that whaling nations might simply coil up their harpoon lines and walk out of membership altogether.
Such a move would not go unpenalized, however. The United States already has the Packwood-Magnuson sanctions, which can cut off access to American coastal fishing waters to any nation flouting IWC regulations. With similar effect, the European Community will require its members to import whale products only from IWC members after 1982.
The bottom line, however, is the fact that commercial whaling is itself in danger of extinction. "The industry is on its last legs now," says Craig Van Note of the Monitor consortium of eighteen environmental groups. Then, correcting the metaphor, he adds, "It's going belly up." Of the 3 million whales that have been made into margarine, steaks, pet food, cosmetics, and lubricating oil since the turn of the century, only 16,000 are on the quota for this year -- evidence of their dwindling numbers.