SINCE 1988, the 39 members of the International Whaling Commission have observed a ban on commercial whaling. But this year's IWC meeting in Kyoto has turned into a showdown, with Norway and Japan asking for a partial lifting of the ban. Britain and the US want a permanent ban. Norway says it will resume the hunt of Minke whales regardless of any IWC decision. Japan threatens to withdraw from the IWC, thus ending the whaling regime, if concessions aren't made.
The showdown caught everyone off guard. Whaling certainly seems regressive. Haven't people been enlightened enough to end the slaughter of highly intelligent and often endangered marine mammals?
For the most part, yes. Indeed, no IWC nations, Norway and Japan included, call for a return to the commercial "factory ship" whaling that turned the seas red in previous decades. What Japan and Norway want, and what the IWC ought to consider as a possible refinement of its position, is to lift the ban enough to keep local cultures alive. IWC scientists say the Minke whale is plentiful enough to catch 2,000 a year with no harm to the species. Japan is asking for 550; Norway says it will take 700.
The demand to lift the ban is symbolic. Whale is rarely a subsistence food. Other fish are available. But Japan and Norway rankle at being dictated to on what they feel is cultural difference. They feel a coterie of US environmental purists have moved the IWC from conservation to rigid preservation.
We applaud efforts to stop killing whales. But if the IWC must concede to show flexibility, this may be temporarily useful. These are concessions for "artisanal whaling" - local, small-scale, where profit is incidental. Tough safeguards and verification must occur. Efforts to end all killing of these extraordinary creatures can go on.
Cultures evolve. Fishing towns might consider the Japanese village Ayukawa, which turned from whaling to harvesting salmon. In the meantime Greenpeace might distribute a new $20 sonar for fishing nets that keeps whales and dolphins away.