FRIGATE BAY, St. Kitts and Nevis — As the United States takes the helm of the International Whaling Commission, environmentalists and animal welfare activists are divided over whether Washington will use its stewardship to pressure Japan to abide by a 20-year-old ban on killing whales or to compromise and accept some hunting.
The rotating three-year chairmanship of the IWC passed from Denmark to the United States at the end of the group's annual meeting in this Caribbean resort this week, a shift from a generally pro-whaling nation to one in which sentiments for saving whales from pain, abuse and slaughter run strong.
But activists point to a ragged Bush administration record on environmental issues, from rejection of the Kyoto accord aimed at combating global warming to plans to drill for oil in Alaska's wilderness and off Gulf of Mexico shores.
The commercial whaling ban imposed in 1986 has been under persistent assault by Japan, which has spent the last decade recruiting small Caribbean, Pacific and African countries to join the IWC and vote against measures that saddle the former whaling club with responsibility for conservation. During the annual meeting that ended Tuesday, Japan mustered a one-vote majority to proclaim the whaling ban "no longer necessary" and a hazard to dwindling marine life farther down the whale's food chain. A 75% majority would be needed to overturn the ban.
The U.S. official chairing the IWC, National Marine Fisheries Service chief William Hogarth, made clear in an interview after his appointment that a deep divide within the 70-member whaling body has led to a situation in which whale-killing under a loophole in the ban is rapidly on the rise.
"We've gotten to an impasse," Hogarth said, alluding to the polarization between opponents of commercial whaling and those supporting Japan, Norway and Iceland in the killing of more than 2,000 whales a year in the name of scientific research or tradition.
"What the United States wants to do is try to find a way to protect whales but at the same time recognize some harvest," he said, proposing a negotiated quota for hunting of whales no longer endangered in exchange for closing the "scientific whaling" loophole in the commercial ban. If Japan wants to hunt whales in the name of culture or science, those killings would come off its quota, he said.
Japan has continued to slaughter whales despite the moratorium, saying the catch is necessary for determining whale feeding habits to protect other species. The meat, though of decreasing popularity worldwide, ends up in school cafeterias, retirement homes and pet food.
The three whaling countries plan to kill nearly 2,400 whales this season -- 900 more than last year.
The IWC permits some whaling by indigenous communities, including Alaska's Eskimos, who have an annual hunt quota of 41 bowhead whales. Japan has threatened to withhold the pro-whaling bloc's endorsement of the Eskimos' quota unless whaling opponents back off efforts to thwart scientific whaling before the group's next meeting, in Anchorage in May 2007.
Hogarth said moratorium supporters wouldn't be "held hostage." But he said a spirit of compromise was needed to break the institutional gridlock.
He said he was keenly aware that the American public would never endorse commercial whaling, but he said the IWC impasse had rendered the body dysfunctional and unable to protect even endangered species.
Environmental activists had sought during the five-day St. Kitts meeting to bring attention to another danger to whales: noise pollution. Powerful industrial air guns used to generate explosive noise in seismic surveys for the oil and gas industry can lead to significant changes in whale feeding habits and migration, according to case studies reviewed and accepted by the IWC scientific committee.
U.S. officials have been fighting efforts to address the effect on marine life of noise pollution, probably fearing it could have consequences for military sonar, said Joel Reynolds, a lawyer in charge of marine mammal protection for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"There's a pattern of denying scientific fact for reasons of ideological perspective," Reynolds said of the Bush administration's environmental positions. "We've seen it with climate, on military sonar, on mercury, on seismic surveys. And it's a pattern that is really troubling because they are denying facts about problems that require action."
Reynolds described the administration as "the most anti-environmental this country has ever had" and blamed a tuned-out American public for taking for granted the whaling ban, which he called the "greatest conservation success of the 20th century."
At a United Nations meeting last week in New York to prepare a report on the state of the world's oceans, a State Department official put up fierce resistance to the inclusion of ocean noise as a problem endangering marine life, said Marsha Green of the International Ocean Noise Coalition.