The moratorium on commercial whaling that took effect in 1986 has been one of the most successful international agreements in the conservation world. The number of whales killed each year instantly plummeted from 38,000 to between 1,000 and 2,000. Whale populations began to rebound. It brought about a new global consciousness — and conscience — about whaling.
Now a panel of the International Whaling Commission is proposing to effectively suspend that moratorium for 10 years. Its goal is a noble one: to bring the three rogue whaling nations into a pact that will place an agreed-upon limit on their catches, as well as to better monitor their whaling and ensure more humane hunting practices. These are all good ideas. Unfortunately, the proposal gives away more than the whaling commission would get. It says in essence that all a nation has to do to escape the commission's official disapproval is refuse to cooperate long and hard enough.
Supporters of the proposal say it would save at least 5,000 whales over the 10 years. The actual number would be somewhat smaller. That's because the three whaling nations — Japan, Iceland and Norway — currently set their own limits, which are far higher than those in the proposal, but don't actually catch as many whales as they say they will. Anti-whaling activists expect that pattern to continue. Demand for whale meat is declining; Japan's whaling operation survives only with the help of large government subsidies. If the three countries continue to catch whales at their current rate, the number of whales saved by the proposed agreement would be closer to 3,000.