SAN DIEGO — The International Whaling Commission's scientific committee released a grim report Monday indicating that the populations of some whale species are much smaller than previously thought.
The most seriously depleted is the blue whale, the Earth's largest animal, whose number is estimated at 453, but could be as low as 200. Before the advent of widespread commercial whaling, there were an estimated 250,000 blue whales in Antarctic waters. Recent estimates had put their numbers at 6,000 to 11,000.
"Where we are is far, far worse than any of us had foreseen," said Roger Payne, a research scientist with the World Wildlife Fund. "I now think that the question of whether blue whales will actually survive . . . has suddenly come open again."
The report is the result of eight years of research on whale populations in the Southern Hemisphere. It was made public as the commission began its annual meeting, which is being held in the United States for the first time since 1971. The session is the commission's last before its worldwide ban on commercial whaling comes up for review next year.
The scientific committee's report also noted a seriously depleted population of fin whales, which now are estimated at from 2,096 to 4,000. Both species are now "only a very small fraction" of their pre-whaling levels, the committee concluded.
The fin whale population was estimated at 500,000 before widespread whaling, according to World Wildlife Fund figures, and in recent years had been thought to number about 100,000.
The research also showed an unexpectedly low 4,047 humpback whales and 3,059 sperm whales, but noted that the survey area south of 60 degrees latitude excluded much of the normal habitat for those species.
Before the session began Monday, Iceland announced it will halt its controversial research whaling program after this year. Iceland has complied with the worldwide ban on commercial whaling that took effect in 1986, but has been killing about 90 whales a year since then under an exception for scientific research. The whale meat from those catches is sold commercially.
Japan, which complies with the commercial ban under protest and kills several hundred whales each year for "research," took a tougher stand Monday.
"Regretfully, there is a seemingly irreparable split in the commission, with one culture seeking only to destroy the other," said Kazuo Shima, the Japanese delegate, in his opening statement.
"What has developed here is the dominance of the meat-eating culture over the fish-eating culture," Shima said. "Despite our great sacrifices, and our efforts to ensure conservation, we continue to be vilified by the meat-eating cultures because we hope some day to restore whale meat to our diets."