LONDON -- The International Whaling Commission dealt with one of the two major questions facing its Glasgow meeting by deciding yesterday to delay for a year its decision on whether to create an Antarctic sanctuary for whales.
That out of the way, it now must consider whether to begin handing out quotas to whaling nations, thus ending the worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling, in place since 1988.
But there is "another issue . . . clouding the debate," according to Martin Harvey, the executive officer of the IWC. "It has been raised by the techniques whalers use, like explosive harpoons; it is the humanitarian issue."
Until now humanitarianism was not a big part of the deliberations of the IWC, which has been seen since its establishment in 1946 as an organization whose function was to regulate whale stocks.
The meeting is going on in the shadow of Norway's announcement Monday that it would resume whaling next year despite the moratorium, a move that quickly drew the verbal and physical protest of such groups as Greenpeace. Four Greenpeace members chained themselves for a while to a Norwegian ship in Glasgow.
Greenpeace's whales campaigner, Andy Ottaway, called on the European Community to ban whaling, "thus denying Norway entry until it ceases this barbaric practice."
Defense Minister Johan Jorgen Holst said the Norwegian coast guard would defend the whaling ships from any high-seas attacks.
Fifteen of the 29 IWC countries at the meeting, including the United States, condemned Norway's decision. The IWC has 38 member states.
The IWC moratorium on commercial whaling had no termination date. "But it required that by 1990 we make a comprehensive assessment and consider setting catch limits," said Mr. Harvey. "In fact, the assessment couldn't be completed by 1990, so this year, in theory, quotas should be given" to whaling countries.
The humanitarian considerations have soured some of these countries on the IWC.
Iceland quit the IWC Monday because it "is no longer an organization for whale management, it is for whale protection," said Helgi Agustsson, Iceland's ambassador to London.
The whale population, he said, has grown so large in the waters around Iceland that the fish stocks upon which the country's economy is based, the cod and haddock, are being depleted.
Both Iceland and Norway argue that the minke population has grown large enough to justify hunting them. Iceland has not announced it would do this, though it is likely to.
The minke, unlike many of the true leviathans, such as the blue whale, grows only to about 20 feet in length. The IWC itself estimates there are about a million minkes in the world's oceans, most in Antarctic waters.
Small countries have figured large in the IWC meeting this year, and to the detriment of the whales. The presence of four Caribbean micro-states -- countries which have no significant tradition in whaling -- has raised allegations that the Japanese are, in effect, trying to buy the necessary votes to defeat the French proposal to turn Antarctica into a sanctuary for whales.
The sanctuary measure would forbid whaling south of 40 degrees latitude. Japan takes about 300 whales a year from Antarctic waters for what it describes as scientific purposes.
The IWC founding documents allow each country to grant a license to its whalers to take 300 animals a year. Japan is the only country that has consistently used the quota.
The establishment of the IWC was stimulated by the slaughter of the great whales, mostly by whaling nations such as the United States, Britain, Russia and the Scandinavian countries.