For those who track the southern right whale's annual procession past South Australia's Fleurieu Peninsula, this season stands as one of the most encouraging in years.
In the last week alone more than a dozen of the massive mammals have paraded through - a sign that the 14-year global moratorium on commercial whaling has worked.
"This has been pretty unprecedented," says Elizabeth Reid of the South Australian Whale Center. "We don't normally see many whales until July or August."
This whale population was once so decimated that in 1872 whalers here abandoned the whaling station of Victor Harbor. Whales in significant numbers weren't seen again until the late 1980s, Reid says.
But as the leviathans are returning in larger numbers, the idea of resuming commercial whaling is also coming back. "I think it's inevitable that there will be commercial whaling at some point,"says Michael Canny, outgoing chairman of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which is meeting this week in Adelaide.
Faced with evidence that whale stocks have begun to recover, even environmental groups have begun quietly saying they would accept a resumption of commercial whaling under strict conditions. "We're never going to be promoting it,"says Cassandra Phillips, a whale expert with the British-based World Wildlife Fund. "But we can see a situation where it might be allowable."
A resumption of commercial whaling - which most observers agree is still years away - could represent a compromise between two conflicting groups within the IWC. One side, including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, wants the IWC to become a conservation body that oversees scientific research and draws up recommendations to govern issues like whalewatching.
But Japan, Norway, and several other nations continue to see the IWC as an organization responsible for managing what they call "whale resources."
"This is a body to manage whaling. It is not a body to manage whalewatching,"says Rune Frovik, secretary of the High North Alliance, a group of whaling countries including Greenland, Iceland, and Norway.
Meanwhile, both Japan and Norway both continue to exploit loopholes in the ban on whaling. In its 1999/2000 season, Japan has set itself a quota of 600 minke whales under an exception that allows scientific whaling. Norway has set its own quota of 655 minke whales, which it claims it is allowed as a result of a standing objection it has to the moratorium and unabashedly terms commercial whaling.
A decade ago, Japan killed almost half its current quota as part of the scientific hunt, which also feeds the market for whale meat in cities like Tokyo and Osaka. "We've got commercial whaling right now,"says Ms. Phillips, of the World Wildlife Fund. "We want to put a lid on it and a safety net under it."
WHALE conservationists lost one of their main tools for enforcing IWC rules when the United States ceased playing the role of IWC policeman, says Patricia Forkan of the US Humane Society and a longtime IWC watcher. The US could threaten violators with trade sanctions. That enforcement option vanished with application instead of World Trade Organization regulations, which prohibit punitive trade sanctions, she says: "We have no way of enforcing it."
Japan has consolidated its support within the IWC, and this also has whaling opponents worried. After the African Republic of Guinea this year became the IWC's newest member, it cast its votes in Japan's favor. Environmentalists say that's the result of an increasing flow of Japanese aid toward the country.
"This wasn't a vote, it was an auction, and Japan was the winning bidder," Patrick Ramage, a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare said after the establishment of a South Pacific whale sanctuary was defeated as a result of Japanese efforts Tuesday.
Another concern of conservationists' is that whaling may be resumed by Russia, which hunted thousands of whales each year into the mid-1980s.
Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand this year backed an unsuccessful push for a South Pacific whale sanctuary, which didn't garner the 75 per cent support needed at a vote Tuesday. As those countries continue their efforts, their opponents continue to apply pressures of their own.
Norway and Japan have pushed for the downgrading of whales within the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), for instance. And if that measure ever passes - it was only narrowly defeated at CITES' last convention in Nairobi, Kenya, earlier this year - it would again allow international trade in whale products, clearing the way for one facet of commercial whaling.
According to Mr. Canny, it is clear that the IWC must consider rules that would govern a return to whaling. But any action is now at least a year away and a vote is unlikely before the next annual meeting, in London.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society