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Time to save the whales, again

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- To a generation that has grown up with environmentalism as part of its conscience, it must seem that saving the whale was a battle that had already been won, or at least wasn't in danger of losing.

But on Wednesday, Iceland announced it was going to resume commercial whaling, breaking a worldwide ban that had been in place for twenty years.

The moratorium on commercial hunting of whales came into effect in 1985, by which time the whale had become as much a symbol of the green movement as a campaign itself, born in the 1970s and tied to the heroic and media-savvy endeavour of Greenpeace activists blocking harpoons in tiny dirigibles.

With climate change grabbing the headlines in the press, saving the whale seems to have slipped off the agenda.

But the reality is that whales have never stopped being hunted. Iceland has been skirting the ban since its inception, and has a research quota agreed with the International Whaling Commission of 200 between 2003 and 2007. With 161 already caught, next year's harvest will number 39.

The other whaling nations, Norway and Japan, both have their reasons to flout the ban.

Norway lodged an official reservation to the ban formed by the IWC when it came into effect and has been commercially hunting whales since 1993.

Japan brings in the world's largest catch of whales under the guise of "scientific research," and in recent years those numbers have been creeping up. This year's catch is expected to reach 2,400, while Japan and Norway plan to kill 3,215 in 2008.

Each country maintains that whale numbers have increased sufficiently to support the number they kill.

Environmental groups however have been particularly concerned by the decision of Japan to extend its hunt to fin, sperm and humpback whales, the latter being one of the most endangered species.

It's not clear that there is much of a market for the catch either. A recent poll found only 1.1 percent of Icelanders eat whale meat once a week or more, while 82.4 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds never eat it.

While some of Japan's "scientific" catch ends up at restaurants as expensive delicacies, 20 percent of its 2004 stock was put into industrial freezers. Pro-whaling groups in Japan have resorted to promoting whale meat in schools, an initiative supported by the government, in a concerted effort to reach out to a new generation.

The economic benefit of reviving the whaling industry in Iceland is decidedly shaky as well - Iceland makes more money from whale-watching than servicing a tiny market for whale steaks.

"Why kill whales and revive a dying industry with a history of mismanagement and deception," questions Greenpeace.

With the market for whale products saturated in blubber it doesn't makes sense. The reason for whaling then is more cultural and political than economic.

Norway's whaling keeps northern coastal towns happy, while whaling is seen as an integral part of a traditional Japanese way of life, seen as under threat by some of the older generation.

"For Iceland the issue is about the right to whale. Behind the decision is a real fear that if we allow ourselves to be dictated to by other countries about whaling, the world will tell us what we can and cannot fish. It's about safeguarding our fishing grounds," Sigrun Davidsdottir, an Icelandic novelist and economic analyst told The Guardian newspaper.

The news of Iceland's return to commercial hunting has drawn condemnation by governments of anti-whaling countries. Ben Bradshaw, the UK's fisheries minister called the move "inexplicable and inexcusable" and summoned the country's ambassador to explain Iceland's decision.

"By choosing to hunt endangered fin whales, the Icelandic government is drawing a line in the sand," said Dr Susan Lieberman, Director WWF's Global Species Programme. "This is the thin edge of a dangerous wedge."

The commercial ban remains an important political issue and for green groups is a symbol of arguably their greatest success.

"For most western governments with active animal conservation groups, being on the side of the whale is the one time they can be seen to demonstrate their green credentials," said John Vidal for The Guardian.

In fact western governments' ambivalence to many green issues was highlighted by Iceland as it levelled a charge against the UK and U.S. as being interested only in conservation rather than management when it suited, and had failed to prevent rapid declines in other marine life, such as north Atlantic and North Sea cod.

Undoubtedly our perception of whales as intelligent and social creatures has helped their cause, although any cynics who think that only the cute will survive should be reminded that without the ban scientists would not have had the chance to discovered the behavioural patterns of the ocean mammals that remind us of ourselves.

The greatest threat to the recovering whale populations may be to come. Japan has secured a blocking minority in the IWC, with the backing of small, developing nations without much of an interest in whaling, such as Samoa and St Lucia.

An attempt to pass a proposal to "normalize" whaling and shift the agenda to managing commercial hunts was only narrowly defeated in the summer.

Now with Iceland operating as a full member despite not respecting any of its rules, the future looks bleak for the IWC and could be even worse for whales. It may be time to break out those bumper stickers again.


Iceland's resumption of commercial whaling has worried conservation groups.

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