Leading Article: Help for whales, not whalers

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The Independent Online
UNTIL recently, the conservationist argument against whaling was strong enough to prevail on its own. After two centuries of indiscriminate whaling, modern techniques were threatening to wipe out the species. Therefore, those whose living depended on it could in principle join forces with ethical opponents to support conservation, although many in fact took a short-term view and resisted. The International Whaling Commission (IWC), founded in 1946, was supposed to be the answer, but it permitted such high quotas under such lax controls that the devastation continued. Not until 1985-86 was a moratorium imposed on commercial whaling, and even then Japan, Norway and Iceland continued to exploit a loophole permitting 'scientific' whaling.

Now these countries are arguing that conservation has been achieved, that there are ample stocks of the smaller minke whales and that commercial whaling should resume. Norway's position is defended by its Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a leading apostle of environmentalism and instigator of the recent Earth Summit in Rio. She says her position is in line with the Earth Summit's policy that conservation and sustainable use 'shall apply to all marine living resources, including marine mammals'.

If the conservationist case is in fact disappearing, opponents of whaling will need to fall back on other arguments. But most of these rely on cultural and ethical values that are rejected by whaling communities and open to charges of inconsistency. If you eat beef, why not whale meat? If a government tolerates fox hunting at home, how can it argue on purely ethical grounds that Norwegian fisherman should stop hunting whales? The mystery and romance that surround whales are of little interest to most fishing communities or their bank managers. Whales still earn their hunters a lot of money, even though there are substitutes for all the products that can be drawn from their carcasses.

It is, however, far from clear that the conservation issue has been solved. Many species of larger whale are in serious danger, and nobody knows the true number of minke whales, or how easily they could survive a renewal of extensive hunting. Given this uncertainty, the problems of monitoring quotas and the threat to whales from other sources such as toxic waste, there are no grounds for confidence that extensive whaling could be resumed without threatening stocks.

John Gummer, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, told the IWC meeting in Glasgow this week that three conditions should be met before the moratorium is lifted. First, there should be certainty that stocks are at healthy levels. Second, there must be effective inspection, enforcement and monitoring arrangements. Third, more humane methods of killing whales must be developed.

He is right. Historical experience should constitute a warning against ill-considered relaxation of controls. The fishermen who depend on whaling deserve sympathy, but the world is full of industries that are dying out because they have become unnecessary, unacceptable or both. Enlightened governments ensure that the human cost is cushioned while new sources of livelihood are developed. They should be trying to save the whales, not the whalers, from extinction.