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Thursday, 26 July, 2001, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
Whaling ban survives intact
Two blue whales on surface NOAA
Blue whales show no sign of recovery from centuries of hunting
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The ban on commercial whaling, imposed in 1985, is to remain in force for another year at least.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has put off a decision which could have opened the way for the ban's lifting.

A motion asking the commission to recognise a system for controlling hunting was withdrawn before a vote.

It means there is no chance of the ban ending this year.

That was in any case unlikely, because the pro-hunting members - Japan, Norway and their supporters - can almost certainly not yet muster the 75% majority needed to overturn the moratorium.

Limited hunt urged

It was introduced in 1985, partly from fear that many whale species were seriously endangered, and partly because of public revulsion against whaling in many IWC member countries.

But Japan and Norway say there are enough whales of several species - notably the minke, which can grow to 10 m in maturity - to allow a limited, sustainable hunt.

Both countries continue to catch several hundred whales annually - Japan for scientific research, and Norway because it rejected the moratorium in the first place.

Unidentified whale on surface NOAA
An uncontrolled hunt could endanger many species
Under IWC rules, they are both permitted to continue whaling, though they ignore the particular conditions the commission says should govern their hunts.

The UK government says none of the great whale species is now in immediate danger of extinction, because of the moratorium.

But the blue and northern right whales are classed as endangered, and the bowhead, southern right, sei, fin and humpback whales are all classified as vulnerable.

The IWC exists with a double mandate - to conserve whales, and to promote whaling. In the last two decades most members have opted for conservation and have declared themselves opposed to whaling, as something both cruel and unnecessary.

But the pendulum is swinging back, and before long the pro-hunting nations may command a majority large enough to overturn the ban.

Long debate

Japan dismisses conservationists' claims that it bribes smaller nations to vote with it at IWC meetings.

The commission has been debating a precautionary system for allowing a limited hunt for years. It is known as the revised management system (RMS).

Its failure at its annual meeting this week in London to make any progress towards adopting the RMS has surprised nobody, though it offends those who say the IWC has long since abandoned any pretence at a scientific approach.

Eugene Lapointe is president of the World Conservation Trust, a group which argues for the sustainable use of wildlife.

Humpback breaching NOAA
Humpbacks remain vulnerable
He said: "The IWC's annual meeting is a sham. The commission was formed for the conservation of whale stocks and the management and development of the whaling industry.

"The science is in place to justify a harvest of several whale species."

Some conservation groups believe it is important for the IWC to adopt the RMS as a sign of good faith.

Split threat

Some argue that maintaining the ban indefinitely will soon prove impossible, and that a highly precautionary hunt sanctioned by the IWC will be the only alternative.

Otherwise, they say, the commission is likely to split apart under the strain of its internal contradictions, with whaling then left entirely to the whim of individual countries.

The logic of that argument is to say that it will be better for some whales to die with the IWC's permission than for all species to face an unquantified risk.

Photos courtesy of NOAA

See also:

25 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Former whaler decries 'blood money'
23 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Angry split at whaling meeting
23 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Battle looms over whaling ban
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