“There she blows! There she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!” Herman Melville, Moby Dick
So began the first day of the chase of the great white sperm whale by the whaling vessel Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab, in Melville’s classic novel. Of course the novel is about much more than a simple whale hunt, bearing weighty symbolism and allegory. It is also a commentary on the exploitation of the natural world; more specifically whales as commodities in the nineteenth century when commercial whaling in America was a massive business. Oil and bones were extremely valuable for the range of products the could provide. The sperm whale was considered to be particularly valuable due to the unique oil – spermaceti  – found in its massive head.
The demand for whale oil coupled with rapid advances in whaling technology such as the exploding harpoon in 1848 which allowed the capture of large rorqual whales and other, faster, species and factory ships in the early 1920′s which allowed the processing of captured animals at sea led to widespread decimation of whale stocks by the 1930′s. In 1946 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was assembled to manage remaining stocks .
Whale numbers continued to decline despite the decision of several countries to cease whaling operations. The hunting of fin and sei whales was banned in 1979, with active countries turning to the more populous minkes . In 1982, the IWC introduced a moratorium on commercial whaling which was to come into force in 1986  after which time international trade in great whale products was also banned as all great whale species were by that time listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) [4, 5]. However, leeway was given to certain indigenous groups who rely on a small annual catch to sustain their communities and other loopholes allowed Norway, Japan and Iceland to continue whaling activities, either by objection to the moratorium or under the guise of ‘scientific whaling’ [3, 6, 7].
Since the moratorium came into being, whale numbers have gradually increased (at differing rates of course, according to the species and associated pressures). While it is extremely difficult or impossible to comment on population sizes pre-exploitation , it is certain that many of the more intensely exploited species such as blue, humpback, sei and sperm whales numbers were reduced to a fraction of their unexploited quantities . It can also be stated with a high degree of certainty that in the 24 years since the moratorium was first introduced, whale stocks have not recovered to pre-exploitation levels.
The core argument has always been a case of conservation versus tradition, diet and rights (though it has been suggested that Japanese vehemence is a diplomatic front ). In recent years, the IWC has been under increasing pressure from pro-whaling countries to lift the moratorium or face a walk-out, arguing that stocks have sufficiently replenished and that quotas should henceforth be set and subsequently enforced by the IWC . In response, the IWC unveiled a proposal which would result in the lifting of the moratorium for a ten-year period, during which time countries would be allowed to resume or indeed begin commercial whaling according to agreed guidelines and scientifically determined quotas [11, 12].
While divisive, the proposal is nevertheless pragmatic. The likelihood of countries splintering from the IWC and resuming commercial whaling irrespective of a moratorium is a very real possibility and adherence to an agreed catch limit for a ten-year period would both allow continued recovery of stocks and the development of a long-term process thereafter.
There are, of course, difficulties inherent in drafting and achieving consensus on such a proposal. There is still “considerable uncertainty” surrounding the current populations of most whale species and what could be considered a safe or sustainable catch. The IWC have thus far used ‘example’ catch limits, much to the chagrin of researchers . Further, while countries such as Australia and New Zealand have criticised the catch limits for Antarctic waters, Japan is of the opinion that the proposed quotas are altogether too low and subsequent cuts would be unacceptable .
There have been fears that current non-whaling countries such as South Korea may begin commercial whaling once the moratorium is lifted, but the IWC proposal explicitly prohibits this [13, 14]. One of the most critical points is whether the IWC allow commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, a vital feeding ground for many species. Japan currently hunts in the Sanctuary under the auspices of scientific whaling  but conservationists argue that this and other whaling activities should be outlawed in such a critical area . Indeed, the Australian government had suggested that it may take legal action to stop Japan’s activities in the Southern Ocean, though it has been suggested that this is a purely political move to curry good favour with voters .
Critics of the proposal state that is represents a victory for pro-whaling nations, but it would certainly seem that those nations do not see it that way. Whaling is, has been, and will probably continue to be a highly contentious issue. However, it is beyond doubt that if this proposal is defeated, unregulated whaling will continue, despite international pressure (Iceland ceased whaling in 2007 citing lack of demand ) and it is not inconceivable that other countries will begin operations in the future. At the very least this will allow the activities of these countries to be monitored and regulated.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Greenpeace, the WWF and the Pew Environmental Group support the proposal so long that IWC quotas are agreeable and enforced, international trade of whale products is prohibited and endangered species and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary are protected (I am in agreement with this stance) . However, a petition released today and signed by over 200 scientists, marine experts and professionals insists that the moratorium remain in place:
“The IWC must not undermine the conservation achievements of the last few decades by again endorsing commercial whaling,” the petition read according to the AFP. “There is no evidence that any of the few populations and species known to be increasing have reached, or are anywhere near, the levels that might justify non-zero catch limits.” 
The recent CITES meeting highlighted how difficult it can be to pass legislation protecting endangered and over-exploited species in the face of determined opposition and despite scientific evidence and advice . This proposal may represent the best chance the IWC has of regulating the actions of pro-whaling nations. While certain concessions should not be made, is there a viable alternative?
Additional (23/06/10; 12:04)
It would appear that the current talks have broken down, with a particular sticking point being Antarctic whaling. While it is possible for the process to continue for another year, the global inability to compromise essentially means that current whaling activities will continue unregulated, in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere.
“…we are in the situation now where the gaps cannot at this time be bridged; and the reason for this I think is obvious enough – there is an absence of a political will to bridge those gaps, an absence of political will to compromise.”
Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former president of New Zealand .
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 World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Sei Whales. [online]
 International Whaling Commission (2009). IWC Information. [online]
 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2010). Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. [online]
 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2010).Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna: Appendicies. [online]
 Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) (2010). Whaling in the 21st century and before – Whaling today and yesterday. [online]
 Japan Whaling Association (2010). Questions & answers. [online]
 d’Estries, M. (2010). Past whale populations may have been massive. Mother Nature Network via New Scientist. [online]
 International Whaling Commission (IWC) (2009). Status of Whales. [online]
 Kingston, J. (2010). Whaling whoppers debunked. Japan Times. [online]
 Fang, J. (2010). Proposal sets whaling limits. Nature news. [online]
 Maquieira, C. (2010). Decision time for whale conservation. BBC News Viewpoint. [online]
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 Herskovitz, J., Junghyun, K. (2009). South Korea to consider whaling if Japan plans approved. Reuters. [online]
 Braun., D. (2010). Plan to legitimize Southern Ocean whaling angers conservationists. Natgeo Newswatch. [online]
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 Olafsdottir, A. (2007). Iceland stops whale-hunting quotas after low demand. Reuters. [online]
 Greenpeace (2010). Why Greenpeace won’t compromise on commercial whaling. [online]
 Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) International (2010). Civil society stands strong to keep the ban on whaling. [online]
 Hallam, A. (2010). CITES: The disappointments in brief. Ninjameys. [online]
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