There is no question that the moratorium on whaling saved many whale species from the brink of extinction. By the early 1980s, it is estimated that the numbers of humpback and gray whales - those most commonly seen by the public - had declined by about 98 percent of what they were before the onslaught of industrial whaling in the 19th century. For nearly 10 years after the whaling ban went into effect in 1985, there was a steady drop in the number of these and other whales being killed each year, reaching a low of 731 in 1994. Since then, however, the numbers have steadily risen. In 2005, about 1,300 whales were killed. The number is expected to exceed 2,100 this year.
The public has believed for the past generation that whales are safe. But the moratorium did not stop the killing of whales. A loophole in the agreement permits countries to kill whales "for purposes of scientific research."
In addition, nations that object to the provisions of the whaling moratorium, even those that are members of the IWC, are not bound by its restrictions.
Norway and Japan are responsible for the vast majority of whales killed annually. Norway, which objects to the moratorium on commercial whaling, is expected to kill 1,052 minke whales this year, the highest number in two decades. Japan has announced its intentions to kill more than 1,100 minke, fin and humpback whales in about a year, all under the guise of "scientific whaling."
Both Japan and Norway have consistently resisted international opposition to their killing of whales.
Moreover, Japan methodically has sought to overturn the whaling moratorium nearly from the time it was instituted, has grossly abused the provision that allows for scientific whaling and even has gone so far as to introduce whale meat into hundreds of school lunch programs nationwide in an effort to encourage more of Japan's young people to cultivate a taste for whale meat, a taste that has virtually disappeared among Japanese under 60 years old.
And it appears as if the Japanese are succeeding.
Since 1998, Japan has systematically attempted to gain a majority of pro-whaling votes on the IWC. Ten years ago, there were 35 nations that belonged to the IWC, with roughly two-thirds opposed to whaling.
But in recent years, Japan has sought to alter this balance by increasing the number of countries on the commission that support the commercial killing of whales. Since 1998, it is estimated that through the provision of multimillion-dollar aid packages, Japan has succeeded in bringing 19 new countries into the IWC, most of which are poor nations in west and north Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific that have no tradition of whaling.
When the IWC meets in June in the West Indian nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, it is expected that Japan will command a majority of votes for the first time since the whaling moratorium was put into place. While a simple voting majority is not sufficient to overturn the moratorium (a supermajority of 75 percent is needed), it is expected that Japan will seek to establish secret voting procedures, abolish the sanctuary for whales in the southern oceans, dismantle the IWC's conservation committee, expand support for "scientific whaling" and generally loosen restrictions on killing whales.
The world should not let this happen. Whales graced the oceans long before humans walked the Earth. Their presence in the sea is a source of inspiration, awe and wonder for people throughout the world, who spend an estimated $1 billion each year to watch these remarkable animals, orders of magnitude more than is earned by killing them.
Yet the reasons to protect whales far transcend their being worth more to us alive than dead. Once, the world rallied to stop the wholesale slaughter of whales, not because whale watching was good business or because we felt that their presence was essential for survival, but because we believed that whales should be allowed to live in the world's oceans, that their presence somehow enhanced our own, that we had done them great harm and that we should stop.
Now it is time to save them, again.