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Whaling is an emotionally charged, politicized issue. It is also highly nuanced. Unfortunately, its details are often lost amid the sound bites and oversimplifications of polarized rhetoric.

Both sides of the spectrum are on display as the 54th annual plenary session of the International Whaling Commission continues this week in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Environmentalists maintain that whaling has never been conducted sustainably, that human avarice has never failed to lead to the underreporting of catches and to overexploitation.

The Japanese government and advocates of sustainable use contend that renewable marine resources are being squandered and that an improved formula and wildlife management scheme for whaling would obviate the danger that commercial harvesting of whales could run amok again.

Both arguments have merit. Certainly, commercial whaling has driven several large whale species to the brink of extinction. Some species have not recovered and may never do so. Still, others have rebounded, although in most cases it is not clear exactly to what extent. Whales’ very environment — the depths of the world’s oceans — make reliable data difficult to obtain.

Amid these uncertainties, Japan has decided to expand its whale catch for scientific reasons, as allowed under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This season it is scheduled to take 50 sei whales and 50 minke along the Pacific seaboard — in addition to the 10 sperm, 50 Bryde’s whales, 100 North Pacific minke and up to 440 Antarctic minke hunted last year. Japan’s catch has grown from the nearly 300 head of minke it initially took for scientific research after the IWC introduced a whaling moratorium in 1986.

Most would agree that Japan’s whaling does not threaten world stocks. But some people worry that whale populations could be ravaged if whaling expands beyond the IWC, or if members repeal the moratorium and other countries rush to supply Japan’s market. In fact, Japan’s own whaling industry could be undercut by resumed commercial whaling if its neighbors ended up doing the same job for less.

Whale meat is no longer a crucial source of protein as it was during the postwar occupation, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur overrode international opposition to Japan’s operating large ships. Today whaling is a minor industry, and its meat is a culinary trip down memory lane for the generation that associates whale meat with the postwar resurrection of the nation.

Complicating the issue is that whaling is one of the few “no-lose issues” for politicians in both whaling and nonwhaling nations. It is a political cash cow that can be milked by pandering to constituencies as well as conservation groups, which can use the issue to fill their own piggy banks.

Abroad Japan is painted as a barbaric whaling nation. At home, it is portrayed as the victim. There is little incentive to search out middle ground. The standoff between whaling and nonwhaling nations is not unlike that of the Cold War. But it might, in fact, be a healthy standoff.

Neither side has exactly what it desires, but both are comfortable enough not to rock the boat unnecessarily. Under the whaling treaty, Japan may conduct whaling research, and most scientists seem to agree that the few hundred head that Norway and Japan catch each year do not place whale populations in immediate danger.

Moreover, as the tug of war continues, whales may end up being the largest beneficiaries. It is incumbent upon parties to add a dash of tolerance to this festering debate. It is imprudent for Japan to flout international antiwhaling sentiment. Likewise, other members do whales and the IWC a disservice by taking moral stands on what is a wildlife issue.

Japan’s wildlife management record does not inspire confidence, and its argument that whales need to be culled to protect fisheries is scientifically dubious. Still, a fence-mending compromise — in which only mutually agreed species and numbers are taken within a nation’s coastal waters with a whaling ban in the Antarctic — could repair trust between whalers and conservationists.

Disagreements aside, both pro- and antiwhaling advocates share a common interest in protecting whales for potentially sustainable use. This point needs to be reaffirmed.

Negotiations need to be conducted in good faith. To ensure the future security of whales and to rectify relations between our allies on this issue, a more enduring and satisfactory compromise should be hashed out in the not-too-distant future. Hopefully, Shimonoseki will be a step in this direction.

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