Many environmentalists privately endorse this apparent paradox. They admit, also in private, that the scientific rationale for the moratorium, which came into effect in 1986, has collapsed. But few say it publicly, for the fight against whaling has achieved a symbolic and emotional status far exceeding its ecological significance.
The acrimony created by this divergence between private belief and public positioning is almost unprecedented, even in the fractious world of green campaigning. The row, over whether to accept a new system for calculating quotas for killing whales, paving the way for the moratorium to be lifted, will come to a head tomorrow when the International Whaling Commission, which regulates world whaling, meets in Mexico.
Greenpeace, which helped to lead the campaign that originally won the ban, has been bitterly attacked for suggesting in an internal document that it did not oppose commercial whaling 'in principle': it hurriedly backed down. The World Wide Fund for Nature and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, with similarly impeccable credentials, have also had to undertake damage-limitation exercises after being attacked for failing to voice total opposition to the new quota. And the environmentalists' greatest political hero, US Vice- President Al Gore, has been pilloried in newspaper advertisements across the country (under the inevitable slogan 'Blood and Gore') for being ready to accept it.
And yet whaling is a relatively unimportant environmental issue. Green groups know that it raises money. Politicians, such as John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, love it because it enables them to look good at no cost. But whaling pales into insignificance beside such global threats as the greenhouse effect, thinning of the ozone layer, felling of the world's forests and erosion of its topsoil - not to speak of the predicted extinction over the next decade of a million species.
No one pretends that minke whales, the only species at risk from commercial hunting, are endangered. There are at least 800,000 of them, mainly in the seas around Antarctica. Under the new quota proposals less than 2,500 would be killed each year.
There are other reasons for protecting whales. Killing them is cruel; nearly a tenth take more than 10 minutes to die. Whaling is also hard to control; Russia recently admitted that its fleet killed more than twice as many whales as allowed by IWC quotas over several decades, and slaughtered hundreds of protected blue, humpback and right whales in the process.
Whaling employs few people, yields only a luxury food and has to be heavily subsidised. The giant creatures are worth much more alive than dead: whale watching brings in more than pounds 200m a year. But if environmentalists are to put an end to the killing, they will have to do better than mounting an absolutist campaign using dodgy and outdated scientific arguments.
The moratorium was agreed, after centuries of slaughter which drove most species close to extinction, because conservationists convinced the world that the methods used to calculate quotas were unsound. It was supposed to hold until the IWC's scientific committee had developed a better system.
This has now been done. Dr Sidney Holt - one of the longest- serving scientists on the committee who did much to bring about the moratorium - says: 'Practically speaking, the original scientific justification is no longer valid.'
If the new system is accepted in Mexico this week, the first step will be taken towards lifting the ban. Paradoxically, this offers the best chance of saving whales. For it will make it easier to get agreement on a proposal, tabled by conservationist nations on the IWC, to make the Southern Ocean around Antarctica a sanctuary where all killing would be permanently prohibited.
This proposal - which would protect the 90 per cent of the world's threatened whales that live in these seas - is supported by most of the 39 IWC member countries, but requires a three-quarters majority to pass. The vote looks desperately tight, but there could be a deal whereby the conservationists would win over enough waverers to secure the sanctuary by accepting the scientists' recommendations on setting quotas outside Antarctica.
At worst this would mean that some 200-300 minke whales would be killed in the North Atlantic each year - a small price to pay for saving the 740,000 in the Southern Ocean. But in fact the conservationist nations may yet, to borrow an unfortunate phrase, be able to have their whale and eat it. They would make whaling more difficult or impossible by insisting on tough new monitoring and anti- cruelty provisions for any hunt. And, in practice, new quotas may never be set, for research now suggests that there are only half as many minkes in the North Atlantic as had been thought, bringing them below the threshold where killing would be allowed.
Militant environmentalists denounce all such talk as selling out, and have scared the more moderate groups away from supporting the new system. But this could provoke the worst possible scenario, the break-up of the IWC. Clinging on to the moratorium, when its main scientific justification has gone, would destroy the credibility of the IWC, and might well provoke Japan and Norway - who already exploit loopholes to carry out limited whaling - to quit and embark on a free-for-all.
Whatever happens in Mexico, the arguments will rage on, adding to the immense amount of time, money and energy that has been expended on this relatively minor environmental issue over the past 15 years. If half of these resources had been diverted to combating ecological crises that really do threaten the world, maybe it would already be a safer place - for whales as well as people.Reuse content