It has been almost 25 years since the worldwide "Save the Whale" campaign led to an international moratorium on hunting and killing whales.
"It stopped the over-exploitation of many whale populations, and many whale populations around the world are beginning to come back," said Prof. Steve Palumbi, Ph.D. of Stanford Hopkins Marine Station. "But they are not coming back evenly, they are not coming back universally."
The moratorium stopped a lot of whaling, but not all of it. Since it went into effect, 35,000 whales have still been killed.
"Whaling is going on right now by Japan in the waters off Antarctica and by Norway and Iceland," said Susan Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group.
Those three countries are using exceptions -- allowed by the moratorium -- to keep hunting whales, and the number of whales being killed is going up again.
"They make up their own quotas," said Lieberman. "They kill as many whales as they want."
That is why the chairman of the International Whaling Commission is trying to negotiate a compromise. He is proposing that Japan, Norway and Iceland be allowed to hunt whales, but with limits on how many and what type. The hope is that will cut the total number of whales killed.
Many environmental groups are furious that the United States is even considering the proposal.
"As a candidate, Mr. Obama promised to retain the commercial moratorium. He promised to end commercial whaling," said Taryn Keiko of the National Resources Defense Co. "And what we know is the United States has been negotiating on behalf of this proposal which would legitimize commercial whaling."
The U.S. delegate to the International Whaling Commission would not speak to us on camera. She told Congress the United States is talking with the other nations about the proposal, but "We continue to have concerns and would not agree to it in its present form."
A statement from the Japanese Consulate says, "Sustainable use of whales should be duly permitted." Presumably that includes hunting. The statement goes on to say elements of Japan's views have been incorporated in the proposed compromise, but they do not agree about the number of whales that can be caught.
The Pew Environment Group is trying to facilitate some kind of compromise with pro-whaling countries.
"They are never going to stop whaling just because everyone wants them to stop whaling, ourselves included," said Lieberman. "So this negotiation has been basically to see, is there common ground."
The proposal calls for no international trade in whale products and a DNA registry to track whale meat that is being sold.
"It also says that no whaling will be allowed by any other country," said Lieberman. "So Russia can't restart its whaling program, South Korea can't restart whaling, China cannot start whaling."
It is not at all clear pro-whaling countries will agree to the plan. Even if they do, there is intense opposition from many environmental groups. The California Coastal Commission unanimously passed a resolution condemning the compromise. Commissioner Sara Wan has spent a lot of time with whales in Mexico.
"When you pet, kiss and look at them in the eye, and see and sense them in that way, there is no way you can tolerate this barbaric practice of their slaughter," she said. "I'm sorry, I'm very emotional."
The commission has no authority in international waters, but hopes the vote will get people's attention.
"It's a statement for not only our government, but for other governments to understand there are not just a bunch of crazies out there, but there are official government agencies that think this is wrong," said Wan.
There are 88 countries in the International Whaling Commission, and though many have good diplomatic relations with each other, they have been deadlocked for years on the issue of hunting whales.
The International Whaling Commission meets in mid-June.
- Japan's Consulate's entire statement on whaling [PDF]
- Full text of IWC proposal [PDF]
- International Whaling Commission
- The Pew Environment Group Whale Conservation Project
- California Coastal Commission Resolution and Background on IWC Proposal
- The Wan Conservancy
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.