The harpoons are sharpened again: As the International Whaling Commission meets in Japan, Peter Taylor looks at growing pressure to defy the limits on hunting

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THERE ARE signs that the world is wearying of some traditional environmental causes - most notably, the whale. As the International Whaling Commission (IWC) opens its annual session today in Kyoto, Japan to debate the extent to which whales should be hunted, journalists have been writing sympathetically of Norwegian men idling away their summers on pounds 28-a-day dole when they would rather be out on the high seas engaged in the traditional hunt.

The Norwegian government now indicates it will risk international opprobrium by killing 800 minke whales a year, whatever the IWC says. And most Icelanders believe their government's line that killing whales is no different from killing cows. Norway and Iceland now argue that minke whales, at least, have recovered to such an extent that commercial operations, phased out in 1987, can legitimately begin; that there is no danger of exterminating stocks; and even that other whales and the fishing industry could benefit if minkes were to be culled.

The less vociferous and intensely diplomatic Japanese would like to kill a few thousand minkes from the teeming Antarctic stocks (estimated at 750,000) - an easily sustainable yield, they argue. Japanese researchers, and some scientists in Britain's Sea Mammal Research Unit, which has no vested interest, believe that Antarctic minke stocks may have increased because lack of competition from the much-diminished large whales, such as the blue whale, has allowed them to eat more krill, and that their numbers may actually prevent the blue whale population recovering.

Whatever the feelings on any side, all parties are making some claim to science in support of their arguments.

Very few, if any, anti-whaling voices are raised against genuine 'aboriginal' whaling to sustain protein- starved native peoples, or where the hunt still has intrinsic cultural meaning. In the case of Arctic peoples, bowhead and minke are taken; and these peoples are not in conflict with the quotas they have been set by the IWC in order to protect vulnerable populations. The conflict relates to 'commercial' operations, in which whales are killed not out of necessity or deeper cultural tradition, but for money, traditional employment, national pride, and in the case of the Scandinavians, not a little machismo.

Some may say, what is so different about killing cattle and sheep? We can perhaps agree the similarities first: money, traditional employment, and - at least in my country, Wales - national pride and machismo. The differences: let any Welsh slaughterhouse take between one and two minutes to render a sensitive beast unconscious, and the operators would be in jail. That is estimated to be the typical time from first strike with the harpoon-grenade for the whale to lose consciousness; it may take 15 minutes. Given the extreme weather conditions under which many whales are killed, or are wounded and escape, there is little chance that modern weapons technology could be used to guarantee an instantaneous death.

For many, the killing of whales is inhumane: that is, not only does it cause whales to suffer, but it demeans humanity when there are people willing to do that for money, or to make life more interesting. For the vast majority of conservationists, this argument is as important as the 'endangered' species question, but for many it is a voice lost in a world of rational 'resource conservation' ideology.

Then there is the question of the right to hunt a migratory species that no more belongs to Norwegians, Icelanders or Japanese than it does to those other nations whose peoples have grown to a deep affection for the whale, and within which there are laws preventing the minority who do not share that affection from exercising their insensitivity in practice.

Such values may be belittled as 'romanticism', but there is a level of intuitive knowledge that leads Europeans, at least, to raise, humanely kill and eat pigs, sheep, and cows, but not cats, dogs or other humans. There is no developed science that can tell where the whale lies on any scale between pigs and humans, but most people who have listened to whale song, and probably all the non-hunters who have had a close encounter with a whale, would place the animal high on any scale.

Until recently, the clash of values between hunting and non-hunting nations could take a back seat to the issue of conservation. It was universally agreed that whale numbers had been depleted; science could not say by how much or what the rate of recovery would be. Now there is a near- consensus on numbers and the IWC has developed a cautious mathematical model for setting quotas for the larger minke populations. This year's meeting in Kyoto is expected to set commercial quotas for Japan in the Antarctic, and Norway and Iceland in the north Atlantic. Yet Iceland has left the IWC and set its own quotas, and Norway threatens to do so if the IWC does not give it 800 animals.

The Norwegians have a reputation for bullying in the commission, threatening to leave if they do not get their way, and the commission is anxious that this does not happen and lead to a free-for-all with no regulation. Among the commission's scientific experts, the view seems to be that 400 would be a 'precautionary' quota for the Norwegians, based on low estimates of whale reproductive potential.

Any argument about culling minke whales, either to aid fisheries (they eat a substantial proportion of annual capelin and cod stocks) or to attempt to secure the recovery of blue whales by reducing competition, must address just how many would need to be culled to have a significant effect. The IWC quotas of 1 per cent of regional whale populations - or even doubling the quota, as Norway seeks - would have an insiginificant effect on these inter-species relationships.

There is a solid case for limiting all whaling to coastal non-commercial operations within territorial waters, and leaving the high seas a protected zone. Any debate on inhumane sports and cultural pursuits, or forms of subsistence, would be left to voters in territories in which they are practised. Already there are French proposals to protect the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, which will severely limit Japanese operations. Any bullying of the kind now being perpetrated by Norway - with its fleet reported to have left for the Arctic a week in advance of the IWC meeting in Kyoto - should not be tolerated. Norway will prejudice its entry into the European Community, and Iceland will risk boycotts of the trade in fish that has made it so rich that it long ago lost all need to kill whales.

Peter Taylor is a biologist with Terramares, a group of independent scientists on terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

(Photograph omitted)