EDITORIAL: Whales win one battle but still are fighting for survival

April 2, 2014 

"The whales have won!" That was the exuberant message that the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd sent out to news media Monday after the United Nations moved to permanently halt the annual Japanese whale hunt in the Antarctic.

The action by the U.N. International Court of Justice put to bed the fiction of claims that JARPA II, under which the country is operating its whaling operation, has been a scientific research program intended to collect data to monitor the overall health of the whale population.

It was a transparent exploitation of a loophole in international law, which has banned commercial whaling since 1986 but made exceptions for research.

According to The New York Times, the Japanese program has killed more than 10,000 minke and other whales since 1988.

The decision by the court panel in the case Australia v. Japan to revoke all permits was long in coming -- nearly four years -- but no less welcome to whales and the people who care about their continued existence.

However, the proclamation by Sea Shepherd comes across more as a statement on its own accomplishment. The organization has been working for years to put a stop to Japanese whaling by direct engagement with whaling ships.

It has been a dangerous effort with frequent violent clashes between whalers and protesters on the open ocean.

There are also other countries besides Japan that have ignored the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling.

Iceland is one, and Monday, President Obama directed U.S. officials to keep the pressure on Iceland to abide by the moratorium.

Said the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDC) on its website: "Despite the ban ... Iceland has continued to hunt whales and resumed commercial whale hunts in 2006. Iceland's 2010 commercial whale hunt was the largest of its kind in decades, with 148 endangered fin whales and 60 minkes whales killed."

If able to comment on the ruling and Obama's effort, whales might note that hunting their kind is but one of many concerns.

Indeed, whales and their companion cetaceans, porpoises and dolphins, face myriad threats to their survival: pollution, rising sea levels, warming waters and proliferation of underwater sonar and explosions.

While global warming threatens us all, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported Monday, it could have profound impacts on marine life as oceans warm and become more acidic.

What that means exactly is unclear, but significant changes in habitat are usually not great for large mammals.

According to the WDC, climate change will have direct and indirect effects on whales from the loss of habitat and food sources and disease and illness due to contaminants.

The ban and the stepped-up pressure on Iceland are good news, but we can't kid ourselves: We haven't saved the whales quite yet.

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