An international ban on commercial whaling has been in effect for 20 years, but, now, some countries opposed to the ban are trying to have it overturned. The debate is expected to be at the center of a meeting of the International Whaling Commission under way in the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. There is debate over whether current whale population could be sustained, if whale hunting is allowed to resume.
The main issue facing the 70-nation whaling group in recent years has been its 1986 ban on all commercial whaling around the world. The decision was intended to help preserve whale populations, which were depleted after decades of industrial hunting.
Japan and Norway oppose the moratorium. Supporters of the ban say Japan in particular has exploited a loophole in the ban that allows whale hunts for scientific purposes, to catch hundreds of whales.
Both sides agree that the moratorium and other conservation efforts have helped many whale populations recover.
Gavin Carter, an adviser to the IWMC (International Wildlife Management Consortium) World Conservation Trust and to the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo, says it may be time to reconsider the limits.
"Well, the whale has been saved," he said. "Almost all of the species of whales are abundant. The few that are endangered now are not hunted, such as the blue whale and the wright whale. The only species of whale that is hunted that is listed as endangered is the bowhead, and that population is between 8,000 and 10,000.
Critics of whaling, however, say that several whale species are still at risk from hunters. Joshua Reichert, environment director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that whale populations are still smaller than before the start of industrial whaling about a century ago. And, he says, any attempts to loosen hunting restrictions now could undo decades of conservation efforts.
"My fear is that, if the moratorium gradually gets weakened, and, ultimately, if it's overturned, then commercial whaling can then resume, and very large numbers of whales will end up being killed in the world's oceans yet again," he said.
Reichert says he is concerned that Japan is pushing to end the moratorium, and that its government has recruited other nations to join the International Whaling Commission to help win votes in support of that position. The group's membership has expanded considerably in recent years to include more African countries, small island nations, as well as the land-locked states of Hungary and Czech Republic.
Carter, of the IWMC World Conservation Trust, says that smaller nations may have little interest in hunting whales. But, he says, they are concerned about sustainable use of wildlife in general.
"For example, African countries may depend on the sustainable utilization of elephants," Mr. Carter added. "So, the principle is exactly the same. If you believe that when a population is abundant and there should be managed hunts of that wildlife. And it's the same really whether it's whales, or whether it is elephants, or other wildlife, but so long as it is abundant."
Opponents challenge the economic benefits, saying there is almost no market for meat or other products from hunted whales. Reichert, of Pew Charitable Trusts, says the best chance for profits is in tourism activities like whale watching.
"Recent estimates are that it generates over $1 billion a year in revenue. So if you look at this from an economic perspective, this is kind of a no-brainer: whales are worth a lot more to people alive than they are dead," he said.
Experts say the International Whaling Commission has been unable to resolve the debate over the moratorium for years, and a solution is unlikely at the meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis. Carter says, there is frustration that conservation interests appear to have shut out any discussion in the commission of commercial whaling, which he says was the original focus of the group. He says Japanese delegates at the meeting are expected to call for the creation of a separate forum to discuss regulated international whaling.