Saving the whales has been on the world's environmental agenda so long that effective follow-through is assumed. But nothing should be assumed in this realm. Replenished whale species can easily be pushed back to the edge of extinction, and economic self-interest constantly argues for fresh hunting.
It's disturbing, therefore, to learn that the United States, which has championed the whales' cause, is urging a step that would endanger the great sea mammals.
On its face, the step may not appear that ominous. The US delegation to this year's meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), beginning Oct. 20, will seek approval of an exception to the 11-year-old moratorium on commercial whaling for the Makah Indian tribe of Washington State. Such exceptions come under a provision of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that allows for aboriginal and subsistence whaling.
The provision accommodates isolated native communities whose culture and food supply is tied to whale hunting - the Inuit tribes of far northern Canada and Alaska, for example.
The Makah's case is much less clear. The tribe hasn't undertaken a whale hunt in 70 years. The hunters would use modern whale-killing equipment, not traditional gear. Inevitably, suspicions arise that the motivation is not entirely cultural. Whale meat fetches top dollar in Japan, where it is considered a delicacy.
But more to the point, if the Makah exception is granted, where does that lead? Norway and Japan are already exploiting every loophole in the whaling ban. If this one North American group, with its rather distant cultural tie to whaling, can resume the hunt, why not dozens of other tribes, and even coastal villages of Norway, Japan, and other whaling nations?
The Clinton administration says it has to back the Makah claim, because an 1855 treaty with the tribe ensured the continuance of whaling. Critics of this policy, such as the Humane Society of the United States, argue that the treaty is superceded by obligations under the current international convention on whaling.
Last February President Clinton wrote Congress, criticizing Canada's licensing of tribal groups to kill Arctic bowhead whales. He said, "Canada's conduct jeopardizes the international effort that has allowed whale stocks to begin to recover from the devastating effects of historic whaling."
The US should take care not to warrant its own criticism.