National Geographic News
Whale sushi held by a chef.
Raw meat from an Antarctic whale at a Tokyo restaurant last week.

Photograph by Koji Sasahara, AP

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published June 25, 2010

An international effort to broker new whaling regulations has collapsed, leaving in place loopholes for whalers to harvest some 1,500 whales a year—including whales in an Antarctic sanctuary.

Contentious discussions at the International Whaling Commission annual meeting this week in Agadir, Morocco, focused on proposals that would have allowed limited commercial whaling to resume at low levels—but under tight IWC regulation and quotas that may have reduced current kill levels.

"Ultimately after a three-year process and intense negotiations of very polarized positions, things broke down," said Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Ocean Giants Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, a New York-based nonprofit.

"And now the way forward isn't entirely clear. In the meantime, it seems like the situation will remain as the status quo," said Rosenbaum, who is also a member of the IWC scientific committee.

That means the three whaling countries—Japan, Iceland, and Norway—will continue to pursue scientific and other unregulated whaling.

Those countries have killed more than 30,000 whales since a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. (See whale pictures.)

Sanctuary No More?

The Southern Ocean Sanctuary was apparently a major sticking point that helped to sink compromise efforts during this week's meeting.

In 1994 the IWC designated the Southern Ocean Sanctuary—19 million square miles (50 million square kilometers) of waters surrounding Antarctica—as a critical space safe from commercial whaling. Most of the world's whales feed in these waters.

(Related: "France-Size Shark Sanctuary Created -- A First.")

But the Japanese dispute the legality of the sanctuary and regularly kill many whales in these waters, a practice that prompted pending action brought by Australia to the International Court of Justice.

Whalers had hoped to retain some access to the sanctuary, but for some conservationists the idea was a deal-breaker.

"We know that when we've allowed whales to recover in places where they haven't been hunted, the sanctuaries have been effective in helping to ensure the recovery of whale populations," Rosenbaum said.

"That's why there's a desire to really make the sanctuary effective, so that whales can be free from whaling on their key feeding grounds, [such as the Southern Ocean Sancturary], as well as in other important habitats such as important breeding grounds."

Japan Faces Anti-Whaling Sentiment

Japan takes the lion's share of whales for scientific research, though in reality many of those whales may end up on dinner tables, rather than in laboratories.

For instance, in 2009, Oregon State University researchers found that meat in a Los Angeles sushi restaurant came from a whale that most likely was killed for Japanese "scientific" whaling.

Japanese whalers have argued that populations can sustain catches of current levels and that science does not support the need for an outright whaling ban.

Many Japanese also feel anti-whaling sentiment is rooted in cultural bias against Japan, according to the Associated Press.

Shigeko Misaki, a former spokesperson for the Japan Whaling Association, said in 2008 that the anti-whaling campaign has gone too far.

"It has almost become a religion, that whales are the only symbol of the marine ecosystem," she said. "People who believe this religion think all Japanese people are evil, because we kill whales."

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