Notes from the International Whaling Commission Meeting

At this year's meeting in San Diego, the International Whaling Commission discusses changes to the commercial whaling moratorium.


| November/December 1989



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Whale songs last from five to 15 minutes. Many have rhyming sounds, which scientists believe may be mnemonic devices to help the whales learn and remember the songs.


ILLUSTRATION: JEANNE BERG

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) met in early June at the Hyatt Islandia hotel in San Diego. This marks the first time the commission has held its annual meeting in this country in nearly 20 years. Back then, the United States was still killing whales, as were perhaps two dozen other countries. Now, with a few exceptions, killing whales is illegal. That could change, as soon as next year.

The hotel sits on Mission Bay, a strangely artificial estuary manicured from the former delta of the San Diego River. The banks are riprapped, with occasional stretches of sand beach. Neither a native plant nor a weed grows for miles around. (San Diego must employ as many gardeners as Hollywood does hairdressers.) The 15-story tower of the hotel dominates the landscape for miles.

Commissioners trickle in over the weekend, joining scientists who have been conferring and wrangling for two weeks. Along with representatives from member nations come observers from nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) like Greenpeace, the International Foundation for Animal Welfare, and the Humane Society of the United States. Many of these people have been attending IWC meetings since whale conservation became a popular cause among conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts in the early 1970s.

Sidney Holt is the patriarch of the whale savers. He's a marine biologist—white haired, rosy cheeked, British, and blunt-spoken. Holt has been studying whales and fighting for their protection for three decades.

At a press conference at the opening of the meeting, Holt stares grim-faced into a bank of television cameras. "Ten years ago we argued that whaling should stop because the whales were in danger of extinction. I'm not sure I actually believed that then. I do now."

When the commission decreed an end to commercial whaling—the moratorium was issued in 1982, to take effect at the end of the 1985 season—the scientists' best guesses had put the population of fin whales in the Antarctic at 100,000, down from an estimated 500,000 before whaling began in earnest last century. The new data released by Holt indicate there may be only 4,000 fin whales in those waters.





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