Worldwide whaling ban founders at conference

"Save the whale," said the sign on the mammoth blue whale-shaped balloon anchored by chanting conservationists outside the Metropole Hotel here. Inside, as the 32nd International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference ended July 26, there were few savings. The overall quota for the world's whalers had dropped from about 16,000 to about 14,000. The cold (nonexplosive) harpoon, condemned by many as inhumane, had been banned after 1980 for use on all but the small minke whale. And the killer whale had been added to the schedule of protected species.

Nevertheless, the conference was seen by many as something of a disaster. Predictably, the worldwide ban on whaling failed, as did the move for a 10-year moratorium. More disappointing to the conservationists, however, was the failure of the IWC to vote a ban on hunting sperm whales. Its own scientific committee recommended a zero ban, citing dangerous depletion of stocks. But Canada, ostensibly an anti-whaling nation, voted with the whaling nations against the ban -- becoming one of the villains of the week, and having its flag burned in protest.

Much of the criticism was leveled not at the decisions but at the manner in which they were taken. The most frequently heard accusation was that the United States had abdicated leadership, refusing to fight the kind of tough battles against Japan and the Soviet Union (the two major whaling nations) that it had marshaled so effectively from 1972 to 1977.

According to several American observers, the US delegation was in open revolt against its leader, commissioner Richard Frank. With strong anti-whaling sentiments in Congress, and with President Carter on record against whaling, the commissioner nevertheless pursued, and won, a quota for Eskimo hunting of the bowhead whales only one lower than last year's. This was against the advice of the IWC scientific committee, but with the support of Japan and other whaling nations.

The IWC, says US deputy commissioner Tom Garrett, is based on international control -- since whales tend to roam with no regard to the nationality of waters. He fears that a precedent for national control would ultimately destroy the commission. "You take out a nail in a pretty fragile boat," he says, "and it's going to start coming apart."

Where will it all lead? "We're just seeing a general decline of interest" by the US administration in whaling questions, says conservationist Craig Van Note. He worries about the increase in Japanese armtwisting in the US and abroad -- which, he says, explains why Chile, Peru, and Spain voted in block with the Japanese, and explains the sudden turnaround in South Africa from anti-whaling to neutral status in several key votes.

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