This may be the unofficial "year of the whale." In voting last week to impose a "zero quota" on harvesting sperm whales in the Southern Hemisphere and the North Atlantic, the 30-member International Whaling Commission (IWC) made substantial progress toward the elusive US goal of an indefinite moratorium on all whaling.
But rough waters lie ahead for many other species of these leviathans. The total number of whales that can be killed legally was reduced by only 500.
"The zero quota is a major victory for sperm whales," says Barbara Levin, of the environmental group Greenpeace.
In other major actions, the IWC also agreed to outlaw the use of the "cold" harpoon, beginning next year. Unlike the grenade-tipped weapon, which exlodes upon impact, the cold harpoon often makes whales suffer a slow, agonizing death.
How soon the IWC agrees to the moratorium proposed by the United States and other nations is a matter of intense debate among IWC member-delegations and environmentalists. The latter claim time is running out -- some species may be extinct well before the end of the decade.
Ms. Levin, who is on Greenpeace's national board, believes that there may be enough votes for a full-scale ban on whaling at next year's meeting. She notes that the Soviet Union this past session abstained rather than opposed the zero quota for sperm whales. And there appears to be greater US support for a moritorium.
In a strongly worded letter to the IWC, which met in Brighton, England, last week, President Reagan affirmed that "our cooperative efforts so far to regulate whaling have been tragically unsuccessful and species after species have been successfully overexploited and reduced to protective status. We have no basis to believe that commercial whaling will not continue to reduce whale stocks."
Opposition to a commercial whaling moratorium comes from Japan, the world's largest consumer of whale meat, from Chile, Spain, and other nations that export catches to Japan. It also comes, in effect, from so-called "pirate whalers" who operate illegally at sizable profits.
The IWC cannot compel member-nations to adhere to its edicts. The Soviet Union, Japan, Chile, and other nations have at varrious times circumvented the organization's quotas and size regulations, according to Greenpeace, which collects extensive data on the subject and does its own high-seas monitoring of whale catches.
The US government can impose sanctions against nations that violate international whaling treaties, although they have yet to be used. In 1971, Congress passed the Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman's Protective Act of 1967. Under this provision, the President can stop the importation of fish products from nations that circumvent international conservation agreements. The US also can ban violators from its rich coastal fishing waters.
In 1973, Japan and the USSR took more "minke" whales than the commission recommended, and the US secretary of commerce certified that this action had diminished the IWC's effectiveness. However, President Nixon did not impose sanctions because the two countries promised to follow the IWC more closely in the future.
Basing their outlook in part on Mr. Reagan's recent remarks, Greenpeace officials are optimistic that the US soon will make wider use of sanctions to discourage violations of IWC regulations.
Environmentals contend that the IWC -- trying to balance disparate national interests in an effort to hold the world body together -- made a serious mistake in increasing the allowable catch of minke whales by more than 2,000 to 12,017 per year. This accounts for about 80 percent of the total IWC allowable quota.
Yet, over the years, the IWC has made enormous strides in cutting quotas -- if still too gradual for environmentalists. In the mid-1970s, The IWC quota was 46,000 per year compared with 13,851 set this year.
Under an IWC "zero quota" rule, the California gray whale population is showing signs of recovery. In 1830, during the days of unrestricted whaling, the best available estimates put the California gray whale population at more than than 250,000. With the advent of "factory ship" whaling in the 1930s -- which the IWC banned last year -- the California gray whale population dropped to fewer than 300. In 1937, the US whaling industry agreed to measures designed to stem the population decline. In 1947 the USSR and Ja pan did likewise.