Leading Article: Save the whale intelligently

Click to follow
AFTER lying forgotten for years at the backs of cupboards, Save the Whale badges are this week likely to reappear on lapels all over Europe and the United States. For the whale is once again becoming the object of the fiercest environmental controversy. In an angry and emotional meeting in Kyoto, Japan, last week, the 34-nation International Whaling Commission refused to authorise Norway and Japan to resume commercial whaling. Furious at the rebuff, the two countries might, in the coming weeks, send their harpoon fleets to sea all the same - raising outrage among environmentalists all over the world, and risking US trade sanctions.

If the whale row turns into a significant diplomatic incident, Norway and Japan will in great part have only themselves to blame. The Norwegian government's support for its whale fishermen and their neighbours is in part a desperate and cynical attempt to revive its waning popularity. In an attempt to make the IWC please those voters, it has cited research of doubtful validity to support its argument that whales may once again be killed for food.

Japan has behaved worse still. Its programme of 'research whaling', in operation since the ban on commercial whaling was imposed in 1987, has been a sham. As any visitor to Tokyo can see, whales have been dying for the sake not of research but of gastronomy; their dark red flesh appears not on the slides of scientists' microscopes, but sliced on neat blobs of vinegared sushi rice. There are also allegations that Japan has used its monstrous overseas aid spending - second only to that of the United States - to strong-arm smaller, poorer countries into supporting its stance.

Yet far from handling the issue with the diplomatic delicacy it deserves, the anti-whaling nations have made things worse. At last week's meeting, the US delegation in effect declared for the first time that it opposes commercial whaling in any circumstances; and the British delegation focused much of its attention on complaining about the inhumane way in which the whales are killed. This new tack played fully into the whalers' hands. Yes, they conceded, whales are beautiful and noble creatures. But why should they enjoy a protection from man that other animals do not? And if whaling is cruel, why should foxes be hunted, chickens be raised in battery conditions, cows killed for their leather and baby seals clubbed to death for their silky coats?

Allowing the argument to shift on to this murky ground will do the whales themselves no service. What makes the whale special is that several of its species have become extinct since the beginning of large-scale commercial culling in the 19th century - and that if the fleets are unrestrained, the whale may go the way of the dodo. Rather than attack the Norwegians and Japanese for their eating habits, therefore, the rest of the world should stick to facts. Until the world can be absolutely, unshakeably sure that the population of every whale species is sustainable and growing, it should tell the two nations to keep their fleets in port. That argument, not emotion, is what will save the whale.