Crossroads for Whale Conservation

“Save the Whales!” One of the earliest slogans of the environmental movement, it galvanized a generation of conservationists. Awe-inspiring behemoths that breached the ocean’s waves and could communicate with one another underwater, whales inspired public support in a way endangered snail darters and obscure plants never could.

And to a significant extent, the campaign worked: A quarter-century after the first anti-hunting regulations were approved, several whale populations have stabilized and a few seem to be rebounding.

Now, in light of that comeback, delegates from around the world will decide in the coming weeks if they should condone commercial hunts once more.

The International Whaling Commission will consider a controversial plan seeking a truce in the battle that has raged since a global whaling ban took effect in 1986. Three nations — Japan, Norway and Iceland — have defied that moratorium, insisting on the right to use the oceans as they always have, and in recent years have expanded their whale hunts.

The compromise being considered would give approval for commercial hunts by those three nations in exchange for an overall cut in the number of whales being killed each year.

While the United States has yet to formally endorse the compromise — the details of which will be made public on April 22, Earth Day — U.S. commissioner to IWC Monica Medina said it may represent the best chance of bringing the ongoing whale hunt under control: “It’s a global problem, and needs global solutions.”

But the negotiations have infuriated some environmentalists and scientists, who say policymakers are placing whales at risk at the very moment when some are beginning to recover. “It’s great to be showing success, but should we be planting the flag and saying, ‘We’re there’?” asked Howard Rosenbaum, who directs the ocean giants program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Warmer and more acidic seas attributed to climate change threaten to disrupt feeding and breeding patterns, and other threats from ocean noise and offshore energy development are rising.

So scientists and policymakers are at a crossroads: Have the whales been, mostly, saved? Is the battle over, or has it just changed focus?

While recent estimates are not precise, several whale populations are on the mend. Bowhead whales off Alaska number somewhere between 8,200 and 13,500, according to the IWC, and are on the rise. Eastern Pacific gray whales, taken off the endangered species list in 1995, reached a peak of between 21,900 and 32,400 in 1999 before experiencing a modest decline. Blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere number between 1,150 and 4,500, and are increasing.

Centuries ago many of these whale populations were much larger, but that was before commercial hunting began. The three historic heydays of whaling were the killing of right whales in the Southern Hemisphere in the late 1700s; sperm whale hunting in the mid-1800s off New England; and global industrial whaling in the mid-1900s, which peaked when hunters killed nearly 80,000 whales in 1960.

But in 1967 Roger Payne and Scott McVay recorded humpback whales singing, a discovery that transformed public attitudes and galvanized a global movement to halt whaling altogether.

emotional impact on people who hear them — I’ve actually seen people weep while listening to them,” Payne recalled. “People began realizing this is a terrible thing that’s happening to the largest animals that ever have lived on Earth.”