THE ``Save the Whales'' movement of the past decade has entered a new era. The days of activists placing themselves between whale and harpoon have shifted to the rougher waters of international politics. Successful conservation efforts have created the illusion that whales are saved. True, we have come a long way since the 1960s, when more than 60,000 whales were killed every year. The moratorium on commercial whaling has had an impact, and only Japan and Norway exploit a loophole that allows the slaughter to continue under the guise of science. The tides are turning, however, and the whalers have politics on their side.
The political forum for the whaling issue, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), was established in 1948 when the whaling countries realized that there simply were not enough whales left for the killing to continue without some oversight.
In its early years, the IWC gave new meaninglessness to the words ``management'' and ``catch limits.'' Hundreds of thousands of whales died under a quota system that catered to the needs of the industry. The IWC became a ``distribution center'' for whales, concerned more with ``supply and demand'' than scientific fact. By the 1970s, eight of the 10 species of great whales were ``commercially extinct,'' not worth the expense of hunting.
Both sides of the whaling issue now face the same reality: Whale populations have been annihilated to the point where several species may never recover. The number of blue whales, the largest creature ever to inhabit the earth, has collapsed from over a quarter of a million to the hundreds that remain today. Extinction may be inevitable.
Japan and Norway have consistently defied both the criticism of the IWC and the world at large. But the whaling nations do not stand alone in assuming responsibility for the decimation of the great whales.
As with any international agreement, the IWC moratorium is only effective if it is enforced. Grass-roots pressure has historically compelled the US to take the lead in obstructing the whaling countries. Unfortunately, in recent years the US has capitulated to the forces of trade and politics.
The US holds a powerful tool for enforcement of the ban. Under domestic law, the president can restrict fisheries imports from countries found to have ``diminished the effectiveness'' of the IWC. Although 13,650 whales have been killed since the moratorium was implemented in 1986, not one fish has been embargoed. Clearly, the US is reluctant to rattle its trade relationship with Japan. In fact, whales have been used as a bargaining chip in US bilateral agreements struck with both Japan and Iceland (the home of a strategic NATO base).
Last week in the Netherlands, the fate of the whales once again lay in the hands of the IWC. In a grueling battle between whalers and conservationists, thirty-seven countries reviewed and upheld the moratorium at the annual meeting of the parties.
Attempts by Japan, Norway, and Iceland to overturn the ban were defeated - at least for the short-term. Driven by their illusory claim that there are enough whales to justify commercial hunts, these nations will attack the 1991 meeting in Iceland with determination. Even the Soviet Union, whose proposal to begin killing whales for ``research'' was withdrawn under heavy criticism at this year's meeting, has stated that it will try again next year.
The US now has the opportunity to regain leadership on this issue. The Bush administration must impose strict economic sanctions against those who seek to make a mockery of it. Japan stands first in line.
Whaling aside, these great mammals are threatened by pollution, driftnets, overfishing, oil spills, and habitat destruction; they do not need international politics working against them as well. Whales are a vital thread in the ecological tapestry of the ocean. Many species, including humans, depend on this tapestry for their very existence.