The accomplished oceanographer Sylvia Earle said: “You must love it before you are moved to save it.” That is true as much for whales and their cetacean kin as it is for the vast oceans. After suffering shocking losses from mindless killing during the 20th century, whale populations are on the path to recovery. Most countries — the exceptions are a few led by Japan — have adopted a strong conservationist stance towards whales and dolphins. The foremost priority today is to close the loopholes in the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. The key provision under the whaling convention that enables countries to kill whales is the sanction for scientific research. There is general agreement that little science has emerged from the annual hunts, while the meat is allowed to be sold freely. A suggestion was made at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) last year in Madeira that the ban on commercial hunting should be lifted, as it is ‘counterproductive.’ The outgoing IWC chairman, William Hogarth, informally advocated a controversial policy of sustainable, regulated hunting. But such a view prioritises the narrow concerns of a small group of countries, often based on reactionary cultural notions, over enlightened international opinion that favours a science-based conservation framework.

Whaling massacres at least 1,500 of the great animals in an average year. There are many other less visible lethal threats that need to be addressed urgently. Ship strikes, pollution, net entanglement in fisheries, loss of food sources and man-made sonar and oil-drilling noise — all harm whales. In the case of the giant humpback whale, which is found in greater numbers in the southern hemisphere, only two per cent of the original population is believed to have survived at the time of the implementation of the moratorium. Happily, over the last two decades, their numbers have bounced back. These early positives reinforce the need for a strong framework to mitigate the gamut of threats to whales. Moreover, this arrangement should be no less rigorous than conservation actions for land animals. It is heartening that Australia and New Zealand will soon be launching non-lethal research on whales in Antarctica. This step can potentially produce enough scientific evidence leading to a full ban on killing of whales in the name of science. It can also be a model for all countries in the study of the life and behaviour of intelligent species that some see as the great apes of the sea.

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