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The death of Lennie’s pet mouse in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” conveys the tragedy and guilt that overpowers us all when good intentions produce the exact opposite of what we hoped to accomplish.

The desire to preserve and nurture nature’s fragile resources can backfire if we become as overprotective as Lennie. In the rush to save the whales through extreme measures and without understanding or addressing the intricate and interdependent relationships that exist within the ocean ecosystems, we may be doing just that.

Nations opposed to applying to whales management techniques that have proven to benefit natural resources on land and in the seas appear poised to snuff out the last hope to scientifically manage whale populations and effectively regulate their use by nations and cultures whose traditional diets include whale meat. That unintended consequence may occur as early as this May at the 51st Meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Grenada.

No one disagrees that unregulated whaling poses a threat to the world’s whales. To bring about orderly and scientific “conservation and utilization of the whale resources” some 30 nations signed the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that created the IWC.

Conceived to conserve and foster sustainable use of whales, the IWC has strayed from that mission. Today, the IWC has become a vehicle for those who advocate a total ban on any consumptive use of whales, no matter the abundance of species.

The current policy opposing harvesting of whales for food was created as a temporary measure in 1982. A worldwide whaling moratorium was agreed to be in place by 1986. Limited whaling was to be specifically allowed by 1990 if scientific evidence indicated that it could be done sustainably. Despite indisputable scientific data gathered by marine biologists worldwide that documents the burgeoning numbers of various whale species, today the moratorium remains in effect and unchanged.

In 1993, the IWC’s own Scientific Committee reported that the population of minke whales was approaching its current total of 1 million individuals and stated that a limited harvest would have no adverse effect on the species’ stocks. IWC delegates ignored those findings. The Scientific Committee chairman resigned in disgust.

The United States is one of the leaders in the IWC opposition to any trade whatsoever in whale meat. At the IWC and at the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Washington remains unalterably opposed to the resumption of whaling of any species, by any culture, for any reason. It is a position based, not on science, but on “ethical” objections, and is not even consistent with U.S. practice.

The U.S. is on record in support of the right of its aboriginal populations in Alaska and Washington State to follow cultural whaling traditions under an 1857 treaty. The IWC itself has a moratorium exemption for indigenous people that supports the U.S. position.

But the role of whale meat and blubber is equally important, equally traditional and equally cultural to entire nations such as Japan, Iceland and Norway.

A recent gathering of cultures and nations who include whale as part of their traditional diet was held in Iceland, March 27-30. Representatives and officials from 21 nations met under the auspices of the World Council of Whalers to discuss common concerns, resource protection and the importance to their people of marine mammals such as whales.

These people want to take limited numbers of whales like the minke. Millions of minke, pilot and sperm whales (just to mention a few) swim in virtually every ocean. Ironically, their great numbers pose a scientifically verified threat to the food supply of the blue whale, which is truly endangered. In fact, the world’s burgeoning whale population is estimated to consume between three and six times the total seafood take of all commercial fisheries combined.

Under the IWC, certain indigenous people have very limited exemptions and are permitted to take whales. But those quotas are often far too small to feed each group. Many IWC members, including as the U.S., have said off the record they will deny indigenous people any increase in their whale quotas just as they have refused to approve the resumption of regulated whaling by Norway, Iceland and Japan, nations with equally long whale consuming traditions.

Opposition to whaling and recognition of ancient cultures whose scant population numbers would rate them a “threatened” or “endangered” status if they were marine mammals are issues that are both “politically correct and incompatible. So which demands the highest priority?

Public opinion polls, even in antiwhaling nations, show strong popular support for limited harvesting of nonendangered whale species for food: 71 percent in the U.S., 63 percent in France, 53 percent in Australia, 61 percent in Britain.

How can the U.S. Humane Society, Greenpeace and Washington reconcile support for whaling by native cultures and opposition to whaling by anyone else? They don’t.

The U.S. plays the power behind the whaling ban. While seeking whaling quotas for its minuscule native whaling cultures, the U.S. works feverishly to encourage a majority of other IWC nations to keep the worldwide ban in place.

Some whaling nations, whose people have consumed whale meat for thousands of years, legally circumvent the IWC ban. Norway invoked the right under the ICRW to exempt itself from the 1982 ban. In 1992, Norway announced it would resume limited harvesting of the plentiful minke whale. Japan takes equally limited numbers of minke whales under the IWC’s scientific exemption. The majority of the world’s modern cetacean research has come from Norway and Japan. Iceland’s Parliament voted March 10 in favor of that country resuming whaling.

A third option, exercised by Canada and Iceland, is to withdraw from the IWC entirely. Although neither nation currently undertakes commercial whaling, there is extreme domestic pressure in Iceland to resume. Should Norway, Japan and other whaling countries drop out, the IWC will become little more than a symbolic forum for antiwhaling sentiment lacking regulatory enforcement authority over any nation.

Should that happen because of the IWC’s insistence on maintaining its overprotective posture and refusal to honor its original commitment to the “conservation and utilization” of whales, then, like Lennie, the IWC will destroy the very thing it covets, international regulation of whaling.

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