for National Geographic News
Could a little legalized commercial whale hunting actually help save the animals? That's one idea floating around this year's meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Santiago, Chile.
The still unofficial proposal involves backing off a 22-year-old moratorium that bans all but a small amount of whaling for scientific and sustenance purposes.
Some problems with the ban as it stands include Iceland and Norway openly defying it to kill several hundred whales a year and Japan's liberal and allegedly dishonest use of "science" to justify its annual hunt of up to a thousand whales.
If these countries are permitted to whale a little, the idea's proponents argue, then their hunts can be monitored and the effects of these hunts better understood.
"It would resume our science-based methods for determining how many whales can be safely harvested from a particular population," said Andrew Read, a marine conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Read has served on the IWC's scientific committee for more than a decade. He notes that any member country can already issue itself a permit to take as many whales as it wants for "scientific" research, as Japan does.
Susan Lieberman is the director of the World Wildlife Fund's global species program. She said whaling itself does not help conservation, but a compromise that ended unregulated killing would be worth considering.
"I think governments have an obligation to try to see if they can bridge the gap here," she said.
Nature of the Impasse
The IWC formed more than 60 years ago to manage and conserve whale stocks, but the organization has drifted toward conservation since the moratorium on commercial hunts was approved in 1986.
Japan maintains a research program that nets up to a thousand whales annually, even as the country lobbies the IWC to lift the moratorium. Anti-whaling nations and activists, meanwhile, consider Japan's scientific justification for its whaling a sham and vow to uphold the moratorium.
All this time, according to Read, pressing scientific issues such as the effect of climate change on whales in the Arctic and Antarctic and estimates of whale stocks around the world are being neglected.
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