So Much for Saving the Whales

Although no one is taking responsibility, it looks as if the '70s' comeback has not been limited to bell-bottomed characters on television and in movies or soul redux in music. On Feb. 26 of this year the Norwegian whaling vessel Villduen was destroyed in an explosion that sent it to the bottom of Fredrikstad Harbor in 30 minutes. (The captain escaped with burns and a broken leg.) Anti-whaling groups have been almost as obsessed with the Villduen as Ahab was with Moby: for years the vessel has sliced off the most expensive cuts of the minke whales it killed in the North Atlantic, dumped the 90 percent of the carcass it didn't want and repeated steps one and two until its hold was filled with whale meat. The waste seemed almost designed to infuriate the save-the-whales crowd. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has sunk nine whaling vessels, denied responsibility for the Villduen's demise, but added, "Nonetheless, we are pleased for the whales!"

Of all the environmental battles that greens thought had been won for good, "Save the Whales" trumps even reducing the erosion of the ozone layer. It was the issue that vaulted Greenpeace into the first ranks of enviro groups--its first action against a whaling ship came on June 16, 1975, off California--and the cause that became a bumper sticker long before anyone thought of saving a rain forest. But this week in Nairobi, at a meeting of the 151 nations that decide the rules for buying and selling endangered species, the whales could be unsaved. Norway and Japan, fed up with a ban they regard as scientifically suspect, have proposed allowing a commercial catch of minke whales, which has been banned since a 1986 global moratorium that also covers great whales like blues, finbacks, rights and sperm. Japan has proposed trade in the gray whales of the Eastern Pacific, a migratory population that cruises the California and Mexico coasts, drawing throngs of whale watchers, and whose commercial exploitation has been banned since 1949. "If people want to see the last decades of whale conservation wiped out in one vote," says biologist Gerry Leape of the National Environmental Trust, "this is it."

Money is powering this boat. The 1982 ban on whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission is so toothless that Norway and Japan have continued to hunt whales, especially minkes, which many consider a delicacy. Japan gets around the IWC ban by calling its hunt "scientific whaling" (which means killing up to 440 minkes each year in the Southern Ocean to determine, among other things, how many whales of what ages the Antarctic stock includes). Norway gets to ignore the ban because it filed an objection when the ban was first imposed; now Norway kills up to 753 minkes a year in the North Atlantic. The real obstacle to more extensive whaling is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), whose ban against buying and selling whale products is legally binding. Since Norway and Japan can consume only so much whale meat, if they cannot export it there's no economic incentive to up the kill. That's why only international trade can spur a resumption of commercial whaling, says Richard Mott of the World Wildlife Fund. Russia, which also objects to the IWC moratorium, is especially hungry for the hard currency that whaling promises (whale meat fetches $90 per pound in Japan). With no moratorium, "we'll see Russia back on the high seas killing tens of thousands of whales within a few years," Leape predicts.

The Japan Whaling Association insists that minkes simply do not deserve the CITES protection they now enjoy. "That designation is for wildlife in imminent danger of extinction," says Alan Macnow, who represents the association in the United States. With 1 million minkes world- wide and 760,000 around Antarctica alone, he argues they simply don't qualify. Japan also blames the minkes for hurting blue whales (population: 1,000, down from half a million in 1900) by scarfing down too much of their food.

Environmentalists, who don't oppose subsistence whaling such as that practiced by the Inuit in Alaska, view commercial whaling as a threat to the seas themselves. Beyond the emotional don't-kill-Shamu argument that brings out the activists is a biological argument against commercial whaling: the abundant minke might not be the only whale on the menu. Once trade resumes, hunters could not only take the minke, but also kill whales from still-protected stocks. DNA tests can distinguish sperm-whale meat from, say, minke, but such tests are not exactly routine before whale meat winds up as sashimi. And DNA tests cannot tell Antarctic minke (fair game) from Pacific minke (off-limits). If commercial minke whaling resumes, "endangered species would be on the market as well," says Vassili Papastavrou of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Even today humpbacks and blue whales are on the market in Japan, and it's unclear where they come from." Japan says they are from frozen stores stockpiled before the ban. And as more whales are killed, some of their prey will thrive, possibly threatening the ecological balance of the seas.

At the Nairobi meeting, whales aren't the only animals in the dock. Four proposals would make it once again legal to sell African elephant ivory (up to 30 tons per year from South Africa, 12 tons from Botswana, 10 tons from Zimbabwe). The United States is undecided on the elephant proposals but plans to oppose commercial whaling. Both votes are too close to call. Japan will also make its case to the International Whaling Commission. "The IWC is too anti-whaling and does not represent the views of the global community," says Nobuyuki Yagi of the Japanese Embassy. Japan has been packing the IWC with countries willing to vote for whaling. What happens if minke and gray whales become fair game? "First we'll mourn, then we'll get down to it," says Leape. "You can expect Greenpeace to be [out] with its fleet going after these guys." If that comes about, the world will get a grim reminder that bell-bottoms weren't the worst thing about the '70s.