The successful hunt of a female gray whale north of Cape Alava, Wash., in May has renewed debate about the future of commercial whaling. After hunters from the Native American Makah tribe in Washington state harpooned and killed the three-year-old, 30-foot mammal, some maritime countries argued that the commercial harvest of whales should resume. Some species, they argue, have returned to healthy numbers.
Whale hunting by indigenous people is subject to different International Whaling Commission (IWC) controls than those imposed on countries involved in commercial whaling. The U.S. consented to the Makah hunt despite its longtime opposition to commercial whaling because it views "subsistence whaling" for survival differently. However, commercial whalers see the Makah kill, the first U.S. take outside Alaska since the moratorium, as an admission that growing whale populations no longer justify blanket protection.
Years ago commercial whaling drove some types of whales to near extinction, prompting the IWC to impose a moratorium on the industry in 1986. Since then, populations of some species have rebounded considerably. The Commission reports humpback populations growing at rate of 10 percent a year, reaching more than 8,000. Bowhead whales now number between 6,000 and 9,000, while gray whales are estimated at more than 25,000. The majority of whale species, however, are still considered to be endangered.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that, although commercial whaling has declined markedly from its heyday, 19,000 whales have been killed since the moratorium. The problem is that member states like Japan and Norway are able to exploit loopholes in the IWC Convention, such as killing whales for so-called scientific research. This year Norway plans to kill 753 whales and Japan a total of 540 whales. The annual meeting of the IWC failed to resolve the deadlock between nations, and delegates from pro-whaling countries went so far as to mock the IWC as a powerless organization that sets policy without enforcement, further warning they may eventually disregard the commission.
In efforts to take action at this critical juncture, the WWF proposed the adoption of the so-called "Irish Proposal," first tabled by Ireland’s commissioner at the 1997 IWC meeting. The proposal calls for limited coastal whaling, conducted under IWC management and restricted to those countries already whaling; no whaling on the high seas; and use of whale meat only for local consumption. The report concludes: "It would close the door on the aspirations of other countries, which may presently be anticipating taking advantage of the growing anarchy swirling around the IWC. It would reaffirm the authority of the Commission before it’s too late. It is, in short, the whales’ last best hope."