​The world is all at sea when it comes to the oceans' bounty

AFTER a tense time last summer between the Japanese whaling fleet and environmentalists, Australia's appointment of Sandy Hollway as a whaling ambassador may well head off worse confrontation next summer. But supporters of a whaling ban in the Southern Ocean should not assume that such a ban can be achieved, or that additional pressure on Japan will not prove counter-productive.

Next time, Japan could well raise the stakes by using its defence forces to protect their whaling fleet. Before that happens, Australians should pause and reconsider the support for a blanket ban on whaling in the Southern Ocean. We need to take some of the heat and emotion out of the issue. In this, there has been fault on both sides. Some of the heat has been stoked by the Japanese, who say their killing of whales is for research purposes, when clearly that is not the case. But there has been misinformation by their opponents as well.

Despite claims to the contrary, Japan has had a long-standing involvement in whaling. It was not simply a postwar development promoted by the Allied occupation forces commander, General Douglas MacArthur, to feed a hungry population. Before the war, Japan was one of the world's most active whaling nations, with a large fleet operating in the Southern Ocean.

 In the late 1930s, it took more than 40 times the number of whales that it now kills. Along with other nations, including Australia, the Japanese over-fishing caused a disastrous decline in the whale population, pushing some species to the edge of extinction. This had occurred before over the previous century or so, as whaling fleets from several countries killed mature and juvenile animals alike. Inevitably, this resulted in a boom-and-bust industry.

It was in response to the postwar depletion of several whale species that the International Whaling Commission was formed. It was never intended to ban whaling, but to put it on a sustainable basis, so that whales could be harvested without putting any species under threat of extinction.

The argument has since moved on, with some people calling for a complete ban on the killing of whales, except for those hunted by indigenous people using traditional methods. But is this what the Australian Government believes? The problem is that Australia seems not to have a rational position.

The latest call by its Government is not to protect all whales, just those that happen to be in the Southern Ocean.

Would it therefore be all right for ships to lie in wait on the edge of the Southern Ocean and hunt whales as they migrated northwards? Or do we really want to protect all whales per se? And if that is our real intention, we need to be able to make it clear why whales should be privileged when other species are not so privileged.

Why, for instance, can kangaroos be killed for dog meat, crocodiles for designer handbags and lambs for Sunday lunch. Rather than singling Japan out for opprobrium, and setting ourselves up for a destructive and probably futile conflict, we should take a more holistic approach in protecting biodiversity in the oceans, at the same time protecting the lives of the billions of people whose lives depend on the harvest from the seas.

We should, perhaps, be more alarmed by the massive and unregulated fishing of krill from the Southern Ocean, on which the lives of whales, penguins and fish depend, rather than the small-scale and probably sustainable hunting of whales that now goes on.

Australia should work for a more wide-ranging and scientific approach to maintain the health and biodiversity of all the world's hard-pressed oceans.

That will require an international effort to achieve a pact, brokered through the UN, to prevent the over-fishing of all species and the destructive methods often used to harvest the oceans. In reaching such a pact, and creating the means of enforcing it, the support of such influential fishing nations as Japan will be essential.

Just as the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change was established to monitor the world's climate, and prompt governments to act in ways that might forestall some of the worst effects of global warming, so Australia could push for an inter-governmental panel on the world's oceans.

Such a body could harness the knowledge of marine scientists, fishery experts and environmentalists to provide regular updates and advice on the health of our oceans and the sustainability of the species within them, from the largest whales to the smallest krill.

The Age, 19 May 2008