Push to `save the whales' results in major drop in number of killings. But it will take years to determine if they have really been saved

Conservationists are winning the battle against whaling. Just over a decade ago, some 43,000 whales were harvested annually. This year, an estimated 6,000 will be taken; and next year that figure is expected to drop to 2,000.

At this year's meeting of the International Whaling Commission, which ends today in Bournemouth, England, the focus was on how to reduce this number even further.

The Soviet Union was the most recent nation to announce that it was scuttling its commercial whaling operations. The move delighted environmentalists, who see it as a crucial step toward a global ban. Most of the reduction in next year's whale harvest is attributed to the Soviet pullout.

But activists insist that their fight is far from over.

At least four nations, including Japan and Norway, plan to continue hunting under a provision in the international agreement governing whaling, which permits the animals to be killed for ``scientific purposes.'' These scaled-down hunts allow nations to keep fleets operational, while technically abiding by a moratorium on commercial whaling.

A limited amount of whaling is also permitted for aboriginal people who depend on whales for their livelihood.

At this year's commission meeting, Japan tried but failed to get its small coastal whaling operation - which is separate from its larger, long-distance fleets - reclassified into this category.

``The fact that we've forced countries to try to use these loopholes is a victory of sorts,'' says Dean Wilkinson, a spokesman for the international environmental lobbying group Greenpeace.

Mr. Wilkinson says even a short-term ban could force most nations out of the whaling business permanently, since the cost of reestablishing fleets would become prohibitive after several years.

Meanwhile, scientists say it will take years to determine whether most whales have actually been saved.

``The whales are surviving, but in some cases only in very small numbers,'' says Douglas Chapman, a maritime mammal expert at the University of Washington. Whale populations grow very slowly and are difficult to monitor, since the animals range over vast stretches of open sea. The right whale has been protected since the 1930s, but it is still thought to number only a few hundred worldwide. By contrast, the gray whale, also protected for half a century, is now thought to number close to 15,000. Scientists are not sure why some whale populations recover, while others do not.

The 40-member whaling commission has called for a five-year moratorium on commercial whale harvests. The ban was supposed to take effect last year, but several nations objected.

When the commission was established in 1946 it was never envisioned that the group would push for a total ban on commercial whaling.

Over the years, however, the body has become increasingly concerned with conservation. The moratorium is to be followed by a comprehensive review of whale stocks in 1990.

Semund Remoy, fisheries counselor at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, says the information gathered from Norway's scientific whaling will help in this process. ``Those against scientific whaling should consider who has the greatest interest in conserving whale stocks - it's those who are dependent on whales for their livelihood.''

But it's the Japanese who have attracted the most criticism. Japan announced in early April that it would take 875 whales next year under an eight-year research program.

Scientific whaling has long been used to gather information about whales. Researchers study the size and condition of individual animals. This information is used for general science as well as for whaling operations. For example, scientists study the contents of a whale's stomach to determine the foods it eats. This enables whaling fleets to pinpoint areas where they are most likely to find the animals.

The United States introduced a resolution that would tighten controls on many aspects of scientific whaling operations, which was passed by the whaling commission yesterday. The US plays a key role in the commission. The international body lacks the power to punish nations that violate rules, so the US has traditionally provided the muscle.

For example, in 1979 Congress mandated that any country found to ``diminish the effectiveness'' of a commission decision could have its general fishing allotment in US waters cut in half. Continued violations could lead to a total ban.

In 1986, the Soviet Union was banned from fishing in US-controlled waters. But Washington has been less willing to slap its allies with similar sanctions.

The Soviet decision to stop whaling could have a powerful impact on other whaling nations.

Each time a country pulls out, it helps ``isolate the intransigents,'' says Greenpeace's Wilkinson.

Soviet leaders are certainly using the decision to their advantage. Next week, a series of events is planned in Moscow where scientists, conservationists, and filmmakers will discuss international efforts to save whales and other endangered species.

Included on the roster is the Soviet debut of the American film ``Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.'' The plot of the film revolves around the 20th-century extinction of humpback whales.

Roger Payne, a whale expert with the World Wildlife Fund who will attend the activities, says the moment is ripe to introduce ideas about whale conservation to the Soviets.

``Maybe then they'll go further in the direction they've already started to move in,'' Dr. Payne says. The Soviets have not yet withdrawn their official objection to the whaling moratorium. They also supported the views of whaling nations at this year's commission meeting.

Besides the Soviets, only Norway maintains its objection.

The Japanese withdrew their objection as part of a 1984 agreement with the US which allowed them to continue whaling until 1988. Peru also objected but later withdrew it.

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