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Delay and dishonesty in defence of the whales: Nicholas Schoon argues that the moratorium should be maintained

IT IS safe to resume commercial whaling. This may sound like an outrageous statement, but it is true. The whalers could kill a few hundred, perhaps a few thousand, of the Earth's million or so minke whales without the slightest threat of driving them towards extinction or even of seriously depleting their numbers.

This applies only to minkes, the most abundant of the great whales. They are also the smallest, but there is still much money to be made from selling the meat of these mammals, which weigh up to 10 tons and grow up to 30 feet long. The choicest cuts sell for six times the cost of premium beef or smoked salmon in Japan.

At the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting in Glasgow last week, Japan, Iceland and Norway argued once more for a swift end to the four- year-old IWC moratorium on commercial whaling - and once again they were refused. They claimed minkes as a natural resource that could be sustainably (ie, rationally and indefinitely) exploited. They are right, but there are strong moral reasons why the slaughter should not resume. It is impossible to guarantee a swift kill of such a large, free-roaming creature. The whales often face a lingering, horrible death on the end of an explosive harpoon.

Whales are special; wild, huge mammals of which we still know little. They may be relatively intelligent and have complex social lives, although that is far from certain. It could be argued that humanity has a symbolic duty to leave them in peace, since in just two centuries we drove most of the biggest species to the edge of extinction. Numbers are still severely depleted; blue whale populations may never recover.

So countries such as Britain, France and the United States have every right to try to impose their anti-whaling views on Japan, Iceland and Norway. But what is depressing is the way in which the anti-whalers use the IWC to do this.

The commission was set up in 1946 to allow nations to co-operate in organising a long-term, rational exploitation of whales instead of the prevailing short- term plunder. But it has long been dominated by an anti-whaling majority, which insists that sustainable, rational whaling is out of the question. Instead of declaring, honestly, that its objections are based on morality - and are therefore outside the scope of the IWC - it uses delaying tactics.

The moratorium was intended to last only as long as it took to work out how many whales were left in the world and a safe, sustainable way of resuming whaling - the so-called Revised Management Procedure. This could take very long indeed. Just before this year's IWC meeting, its scientific committee reached belated agreement on the single most important component of the programme - the catch- limit algorithm. The fact that the committee could reach agreement was hailed as an impressive achievement.

There are probably less than 20 people in the world who fully understand the catch-limit algorithm, a brain-numbing combination of statistics, probability, algebra and computer simulations of whale population dynamics. Its originator is Justin Cooke, a British scientist who lives in Germany and works for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

It provides a supersafe, highly cautious figure for how many whales can be taken each year from a particular stock - say minkes in the north-east Atlantic. It replaces flawed methods of allocating quotas that allowed the depletion of whaling stocks to continue.

Under the catch-limit algorithm, there would be no whaling of any stock whose level had fallen below 54 per cent of the numbers occurring naturally before whaling began. The catch limit set using the algorithm should ensure that any stock above 54 per cent would stay above that level.

The IWC's scientific committee has shown that the catch- limit algorithm can cope with natural fluctuations in population levels caused by environmental changes. It can also cope with the fact that estimates of whale population levels, their degree of depletion and rate of growth are extremely imprecise. Even with these uncertainties, the catch-limit algorithm should ensure no stock comes anywhere near to extinction.

The Norwegians want to use the catch-limit algorithm to set a quota for minke whales in the north-east Atlantic. Not so fast, say the anti-whalers. Before the moratorium can be lifted, the rest of the Revised Management Procedure must be agreed on. That will include putting international inspectors on whaling ships and higher standards for sharing data on the sightings and harpoonings of whales.

Britain also insists that there should be no more commercial whaling until a more humane killing method is devised. So there is plenty of scope for stretching out the moratorium while the IWC debates the Revised Management Procedure.

Last week Iceland left the IWC in disgust. Norway is staying in for the time being but said it would resume commercial whaling next year - setting itself a quota in defiance of the IWC. It can do this without breaking any of the IWC's rules because it filed an objection when the moratorium was introduced.

Japan may be gradually giving up whaling of its own accord. Each year fewer Japanese eat whale meat or feel strongly about the issue. It is a minority taste. The country is highly unlikely to quit the IWC or resume commercial whaling without its approval. In any case, Japan kills 300 minke whales - within IWC rules - each year in the Antarctic as part of a research programme.

If Norway and Iceland resume large-scale whaling, then any campaign to stop them will have to be outside the IWC. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace, which scored a great victory with the moratorium, would certainly try to organise a consumer boycott of exports from Norway and Iceland. Even governments may impose embargoes or extra duties, although in doing so they would probably fall foul of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

All this would be refreshing - an open, honest fight between the pro- and anti-whalers instead of the stifling campaign of manoeuvre, delay and dissimulation at the IWC. It would be like coming up for air.

(Photograph omitted)