On May 8, the British government took action to cut through four decades of political wrangling over one of the most debated and least debatable conservation propositions - whether to extend permanent worldwide protection to the planet's great whales. Fisheries Minister Tony Baldry announced that the British would oppose commercial whaling, whether or not it was ecologically or scientifically justifiable. President Clinton would do well to follow suit.
Britain joins only two other countries, Australia and New Zealand, in "just saying no" to commercial whaling. Despite mounting threats to some of the planet's most extraordinary animals, the United States, along with several other nations, continues to oppose commercial whaling, but only insofar as these activities cannot be sustainably managed. This position is the product of the arcane and convoluted politics of the 50-year-old International Whaling Commission (IWC), the only body allowed to regulate commercial whaling in international waters.
In 1986, having witnessed a catastrophic decline in most of the world's great-whale species following several decades of wanton exploitation, the IWC called for a worldwide moratorium on whaling, which still continues today. It was an extreme act by a body whose real raison d'tre is not conserving whales but managing their slaughter. Viewed through the myopic prism of the IWC, the annual slaughter of hundreds of minke whales by Norwegian and Japanese whaling vessels constitutes "technical violations" of the moratorium, and elicits only tepid concern from the world community, including Washington.
This helps explain why, contrary to widespread belief, the moratorium hasn't saved the whales. First, Japan and Norway, two of the wealthiest nations on earth, continue to evade the moratorium, citing IWC loopholes in support of their actions. Both countries have expanded their kills in the past six months, and both are agitating for a formal end to the moratorium.
Of equal concern, there is evidence of a growing illegal international market for whale meat, one of the world's most profitable wildlife products.
Poor controls and high prices mean strong incentives for large-scale pirate whaling and other abuses. Only last month, Japanese officials seized several tons of contraband Norwegian whale meat, bound for the upscale sashimi restaurants of Tokyo. If Japan and Norway cannot control this sort of smuggling, who can?
More disturbing still is the fact that, despite a decade-long respite from the hunt, some whale species show little sign of recovery. Species still hanging by a thread include the northern right whale and the blue whale, the largest creature ever to have lived on earth. Pollution is also threatening the whales' prospects for survival. Against this backdrop, Britain's announcement is a welcome invitation to reexamine global values. In 1996, do we really need to be hunting whales commercially?
Commercial whaling today has more to do with nationalism, greed, and ideology than it does with meeting human needs. A nice serving of whale sashimi in Tokyo can easily cost $100, luxury fare even by Japanese standards. People in Norway or Japan would not go hungry without whale meat. Few question the need or right of a handful of indigenous communities in the European and American far North to take a few dozen whales for subsistence purposes. Beyond that, whaling is simply unnecessary.
Which brings us to the ultimate question - do we want to kill whales? Few animals have a greater hold on the human imagination than do the world's cetaceans. From the intelligent and captivating bottlenose dolphin to the great leviathans - the blues, fins, humpbacks, - this is a family of superlatives. Few who have spent time among these creatures have failed to note a quality of presence, of being, among them that is both inspiring and deeply humbling. They are monumental reminders that the global web of life is a world of wonders, one in which we humans have every right to exist, but only in reasonable harmony with the rest of creation.
The coming of the millennium three years hence has begun to spawn widespread self-examination of where we humans have come and where we are headed. This reflection could, if we are lucky, produce a series of acts large and small that instill sanity and vision into all aspects of our relationship with the natural world. What better place to start than by ending commercial whaling once and for all. What a splendid gift, not only to the whales, but to ourselves.