Whale wars -- the uneasy hunt for a solution

An Obama plan to allow a few nations to continue hunting whales would sanction a sorry practice. But in exchange it would buy time for the majestic creatures to continue recovering in number and for outdated culinary attitudes to shift.

Most of the world couldn’t care less about eating whale meat. And the market for whale oil lamps disappeared in the 19th century when petroleum was discovered and Edison had a brighter idea.

Why whalers still ply the oceans remains a mystery outside a few places where hunting for the leviathans remains a cultural tradition. For most people, whales represent what is glorious and awe-inspiring about the natural world, the blue whale being the largest animal now alive on the planet.

Yet the hunting of whales goes on – despite an international ban set forth in 1986. Japan has an exception to hunt whales for “scientific research.” Norway and Iceland don’t abide by the ban. All three still stalk and kill the majestic animals, as do indigenous peoples in several more countries.

According to The New York Times, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) now is close to putting to a vote a new policy that would sanction some limited commercial hunting. It appears to have the support of the United States and several other nations that oppose whaling.

In exchange for allowing legal hunting, whaling operations would be put under stricter monitoring, including the use of tracking devices and a whale DNA registry that could uncover where whale meat is being sold anywhere in the world. No new nations would be allowed to begin hunting.

The proposal may be announced next week on Earth Day (April 22), presumably to emphasize the protective aspects of the new agreement. Supporters argue that up to 5,000 whales would be saved from slaughter over the life of the 10-year pact by bringing Norway and Iceland into the agreement and strictly limiting hunting. To take effect, the agreement would have to be approved by 75 percent of the IWC members at a meeting this June.

Estimates vary, but perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 whales are now hunted and killed every year. That compares with 80,000 as recently as 1960. Stocks of some whale species have rebounded, though many remain on endangered lists.

A study released Wednesday by scientists at Oregon State University showed that whale meat from Japan showed up in South Korea and California, part of an illegal international trade. Japan’s whale hunt is officially for “scientific” purposes, but the DNA trail showed it was on diners’ plates in other countries.

In Japan itself, whale meat is a tiny part of the diet. But Japanese are defensive of their right to hunt whales as part of their history, sovereignty, and cultural tradition. The tough Japanese stand on whaling may also be a shot across the bow to other nations that it plans to stand tough on a related issue: fishing for bluefin tuna. The tuna is widely prized and eaten in Japan, but world stocks have dropped 60 percent in the last decade amid calls for a ban on bluefin tuna fishing.

While limited hunting of whales does nothing to help them survive, it’s hardly the only problem the giant cetaceans face. Stress from ship noise, which interferes with their own underwater calls, collisions with vessels, pollution, and getting caught in fishing nets present serious hazards. So, too, does ocean acidification, a result of more CO2 being absorbed by oceans, which may play havoc with the food chain whales rely on.

A hunting ban alone wouldn’t end the trouble for whales. All these hazards need attention, too.

Without an agreement on hunting, the IWC itself may fall apart, setting negotiations back to Square 1. And with no agreement, there’s no reason to think the number of whales lost to hunters will not continue or even increase.

Environmentalists have cause to fret that an agreement that includes hunting will sanction an unnecessary and troubling practice.

But it would also allow whale stocks another decade of protection to head toward recovery. And it would provide another decade to try to persuade whaling countries that their cultural tradition of whaling should have gone out of style with whale-bone corsets.

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