SAVING the world's whales for future generations is a worthy goal, and on the surface it would appear that the new United States-Japan whaling agreement is a step in that direction.
The accord says that Japan, one of the major whaling nations, will not hunt any whales after March 31, 1988. This brings Japan into line with the views of the International Whaling Commission, albeit three years late: The commission has voted to end all commercial whaling as of the last day of 1985.
However, the situation is more complicated than first appearances would indicate. A case can be made that the agreement ultimately will wind up endangering more whales than it saves.
For the past two years the United States has had a law which might well have caused Japan to end whaling within a few months, not years. This measure requires that the US reduce by at least 50 percent the amount of fish a nation can harvest from American waters, if the US Commerce Department finds that nation is violating the whaling commission's edicts.
One of those rulings is that the hunting of sperm whales was supposed to cease by the end of 1983; however, Japan's whalers are widely believed to have begun this season's sperm whale hunt.
Proponents of the law point out that if the Commerce Department had checked and found that Japan in fact is harvesting sperm whales and had then halved Japanese fishing rights, the effect on the important Japanese fishing industry would have been extraordinary.
Japan now harvests more than 1 million tons of fish from American waters; rather than face the imminent prospect of cutting this in half, Japan might well have agreed to end the less lucrative sperm whaling within a few months. Instead the new agreement in effect permits it to continue whaling an additional three years, without penalty.
Of additional concern is the response to the new pact by other whaling nations such as the Soviet Union, Norway, Peru, and Iceland. Will they, too, seek in effect a three-year extension of whale harvesting without harm to their fishing rights in American waters? For that matter, what is to prevent Japan from later seeking an additional extension?
What's done is done - unless the American court system invalidates it, which is possible inasmuch as a suit on the issue was filed earlier this month. Most important now is that no additional countries be granted exceptions. Regardless of pressure, other fishing and whaling nations should be held to account for their actions, as US law provides.