THE worldwide ban on commercial whaling, in force since 1986, will stay in place for another year, but after that Norway, Iceland, and Japan - the main whaling nations - seem certain to break ranks and resume large-scale harvesting.
At a meeting of the 28-nation International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Glasgow last week, anti-whaling nations narrowly averted an immediate breakdown of the moratorium that has been in force since 1986.
But Norway declared its intention to resume whaling next year, and Iceland withdrew from the IWC. Kazio Schima, Japan's representative on the commission, said his country would probably resume hunting for the middle-sized minke species of whale in 1993. Pro-whaling nations also blocked a French move to have the Antarctic Ocean declared a whale sanctuary.
James Martin-Jones of the World Wide Fund for Nature said the IWC's decision to continue monitoring of whale numbers for a further 12 months was a victory for science over commerce, but he and other anti-whaling speakers, including representatives of the environmental organization Greenpeace, appeared resigned to the 1986 ban being lifted or broken.
Norway and Iceland told the Glasgow meeting that they planned to form a breakaway North Atlantic Marine Mammals Commission. Japan said it was likely to join the NAMMC if it was not satisfied with the next 12 months of monitoring.
Pressure for a resumption of whaling has been building for two or three years. The ban on commercial hunting of endangered species of large whales such as the humpback and the blue whale was not challenged in Glasgow, but the steady growth of the minke population has encouraged traditional whaling nations to argue that minke can be safely hunted again.
When the IWC ban on minke whaling was imposed in 1986 scientists said the numbers of minkes had reached critically low levels. Estimates say there are now 114,000 minke whales in the North Atlantic and around 760,000 in the Antarctic seas.
Norway and Iceland said their economies depended on a resumption of whaling. Japan's IWC commissioner told the Glasgow meeting that it would be increasingly hard to find political support in Japan for adherence to the whaling ban.
"Whale meat is part of Japan's cultural tradition," he said.
Passions in the debate on a resumption of commercial harvesting of minke whales ran high. "The IWC remains the only international body which can regulate whaling," said Mr. Martin-Jones. "Any country that tries to leave and says it is entitled to start whaling outside it is on the wrong track and will be subject to a barrage of international criticism. Norway is in danger of turning itself into an international pariah."
But Norway has already decided to resume whaling in 1993. The decision was announced June 29 by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.
Since the 1986 IWC ban was imposed Japan has enjoyed a small loophole. It has been allowed to take 300 minke whales each year for "research purposes." At Glasgow, Greenpeace representatives said this was a guise for commercial whaling and claimed that "research" minke whales usually end up in upscale Japanese sushi restaurants.
The anti-whaling lobby's current case appeared to have been weakened, a United States delegate said, by a change of argument on the part of conservationist groups.
"Six or seven years ago," he said, "environmentalists were saying that whaling was bad because the continuation of some species was under threat. Nowadays the same people have switched to saying that whales should be protected for humanitarian reasons."
John Gummer, Britain's agriculture and fisheries minister, who opened the Glasgow meeting, appeared to reflect the new conservationist approach. In a speech he put greater emphasis on the cruelty of killing whales with explosive harpoons than on the need to conserve their numbers.