Environmental and animal-welfare groups are urging the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to persuade the World Health Organization (WHO) to act over fears about eating whale meat.
The coalition of organisations wants the WHO to issue guidelines amid fears about the safety of the meat.
The groups say whale meat is highly contaminated with mercury and should not be eaten.
But whaling nations say they already have health guidelines in place.
For the past weeks, anti-whaling activists have been drafting a letter aimed at persuading governments to act, in particular, trying to draw attention to the issue of consuming meat of smaller whales and dolphins, known as small cetaceans.
They say dangerously high levels of mercury accumulate up the food chain.
Small cetaceans, like tooth whales and pilot whales, are near the top of it and therefore a lot more toxic compounds tend to accumulate in these mammals’ tissues than in smaller inhabitants of the marine world, warn the NGOs.
Currently, the WHO does not have any guidelines regarding the consumption of whale meat, but its website does list mercury as one of the top 10 chemicals of major public health concern.
The groups are hoping that their efforts will prompt the WHO to issue such advice in the near future.
Risks and benefits
But the government of one of the nations that consumes a lot of small cetaceans’ meat and blubber, the Faroe Islands in the North-East Atlantic, a self-governing nation within the Kingdom of Denmark, says that the people have been advised on the maximum amount deemed safe for the health – no more than one-to-two meals per month.
“It’s quite wrong to use the term ‘health hazard’,” Kate Sanderson, director of the department of oceans and environment of Faroes’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told BBC News.
“It’s true that pilot whales have very high levels of mercury in the meat and PCBs in the blubber and in 1998, the relevant health authorities at the Faroes issued a safety recommendation advising people on how much it was safe to eat. And people have taken that advice on board.”
She also said that eating whale meat and blubber presented numerous, well-documented, benefits for humans.
But conservationists believe that harmful effects of mercury outweigh all the benefits.
They also hope that if the WHO manages to raise people’s interest about possible health risks of whale meat, further goals of limiting the hunt of small cetaceans may be achieved.
The current IWC whaling moratorium covers only some 10 whale species – a relatively small fraction of the total number of about 80 species in the whale family.
Hunting to extinction?
“The IWC ban on commercial whaling of larger species does not extend to small hunted species like pilot whales and dolphins, which are being hunted in huge numbers,” Andy Ottaway of the Campaign Whale, a UK-based NGO, told BBC News.
He said that if the practice continued, it was possible to hunt small cetaceans to extinction.
“A lot of hunting of smaller whales and dolphins is seen by those countries that conduct the whaling as outside the jurisdiction of the convention, which is a total nonsense.
“In some circumstances, they are being hunted in greater numbers because of the whaling ban for larger species,” he said.
He explained that his organisation, along with several other groups, has already received support regarding the public health risks issue from 12 governments.
They are hoping to get others to back the efforts to limit the consumption of small whales and thus limit the hunts.
Probably the biggest annual hunt of small cetaceans takes place off the coast of Japan, which has received world-wide attention after the airing of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove.