WASHINGTON — A ban on commercial whale hunting since 1986 hasn't stopped Japan, Iceland and Norway from killing 35,000 whales, according to U.S. government counts. Now the International Whaling Commission has proposed a new approach — legalize whaling for those three nations for the next 10 years, but impose limits and watch the whalers more carefully.
The plan doesn't propose to phase out commercial whaling, even though whales in many areas have not rebounded in numbers and face other threats. Environmental groups say it's far too weak and could open the way to more commercial whaling fleets launching from Russia and other countries.
The whaling moratorium brought a sharp drop in the number of whales hunted and killed when it went into effect. In recent years, however, the three whaling nations have been killing whales in increasing numbers. Last year, the three countries that hunt for whales despite the ban — Japan, Iceland and Norway — killed about 1,700 whales, including minke, fin, sei, gray and Bryde's whales.
"What we recommend, our precautionary approach, is to set the numbers (for commercial hunts) at zero until scientists can prove otherwise, and they're doing it backwards," said Susan Millward of the Animal Welfare Institute.
Some whale populations have rebounded in some parts of the world, but many are in decline or their numbers are unknown. Whales also face other threats from humans, such as overfishing of prey species and ship strikes.
Japan has used a loophole that allows killing whales for scientific research, even though the whale meat ends up in supermarkets and sushi bars. Norway and Iceland have used a loophole that allows them to continue whaling because they objected to the ban. The three countries set their own quotas.
Over the past three years, a group of nations including the U.S. has been talking about a compromise plan that would restore authority of the International Whaling Commission and improve whale conservation. The chairman of the IWC, Christian Maquieira, on Thursday announced a proposal for the 88 IWC member countries to consider at a meeting in June. Much could change before they vote.
The proposal would allow the three countries to catch whales according to IWC quotas and would increase the organization's monitoring of hunts.
The IWC said in a press release that several thousand fewer whales would be killed over a 10-year period if the proposal is adopted. It added, however, that the quotas didn't represent a stable limit, that all countries would be dissatisfied, and that the whole quota plan would be open to debate in June.
Decisions of the IWC require a three-fourths majority. Japan has persuaded many countries to line up with its positions in past votes.
Environmental groups say they aren't worried about traditional subsistence whaling in Alaska, but that hunt is politically connected to commercial whaling. The IWC also approves permits for Alaskan whaling. The next vote on that permit will be in 2012. Support from Japan and other pro-whaling nations will be needed.
The U.S. was one of about a dozen countries that helped craft the compromise proposal during the past three years. The U.S. and other members, however, didn't immediately endorse the plan put forward on Thursday. Monica Medina, the No. 2 official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. commissioner to the whaling organization, said in a statement that the U.S. would review the proposal carefully.
Millward, at the Animal Welfare Institute, said that the proposed quotas represent only a small improvement over this year's catch. In addition, she said Russia and other nations that authorized whaling by indigenous people would be able to start commercial whaling under the proposal.
Consumption of whale meat has been on the decline, conservationists say, but they worry that other countries could open new markets and find new uses for whales, such as medicine or food for farm-raised fish.
Once whaling for some countries is approved, other countries that don't have indigenous hunts could claim they have the same right to commercial whaling, Millward said. South Korea has expressed interest in commercial whaling. The plan also wouldn't prevent countries from objecting to the new plan and starting whaling, she said.
Patrick Ramage, the whale program director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, also called for a long-term push to end whaling and opposed lifting the moratorium for commercial whaling nations.
"We shouldn't undo and abandon these hard-won conservation decisions in order to please the last three countries involved in this outmoded and cruel practice," he said.
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