When the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission opened in Alaska on Monday, May 28, Japan declared that it planned to kill 50 humpback whales as well as the usual minke and fin whales next year in its "scientific" whale hunt (catch them, count them and sell them as food).
Humpbacks were heading for extinction when the IWC agreed on a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986, so the place erupted in protests.
Australian environment minister Malcolm Turnbull called it "a highly provocative act,' but it is also a carefully calculated one.
Japan's real goal is to get commercial whaling restarted, and it offered to drop the plan to kill humpbacks if the IWC approves a return to "limited commercial whaling' by four Japanese coastal villages.
The pro-moratorium countries at the IWC understand Japan's tactics and will not make that deal, reckoning that the lives of 50 humpbacks are less important than the principle of no commercial whaling.
The killing of 50 humpbacks is regrettable, but it will not endanger a species that has gradually recovered to perhaps 60,000 or 70,000 since the moratorium was imposed.
Which is not to say that the humpbacks have really recovered. The IWC estimates that there were only 115,000 humpbacks before whaling began, but in a 2005 study, marine biologist Steve Palumbi of Stanford University examined genetic diversity among humpbacks and concluded that there used to be between 750,000 and 2 million of them.
At best, humpback whales have only recovered to 8 per cent of their former numbers, and it may be as little as 3 per cent.
We care about whales now (call it mammalian solidarity, if you like), but the fish of the oceans benefit from no such sentiment. According to a report last year in the scientific journal Nature, 90 per cent of the really big fish - tuna, marlin, swordfish and the like - are already gone, and the middle-sized fish are following.
The cod are gone on Newfoundland's Grand Banks and show little sign of recovery despite an absolute ban on cod fishing for the past 15 years. They are declining rapidly in the North Sea, too.
In the 1980s, the annual catch was about 300,000 tonnes. The European Union quota for cod was cut to 80,000 tonnes in 2005 - and EU fishers only managed to catch two-thirds of that. Nevertheless, they will probably keep on fishing, with gradually reduced quotas, until the stock is completely eliminated.
The problem is global. "At this point, 29 per cent of fish and seafood species have collapsed; that is, their catch has declined by 90 per cent,' explained Boris Worm of Dalhousie University late last year. "It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating.' If the trend continues, he predicted, all fish and seafood species that are fished commercially will collapse by 2048.
Individual fishers up to their ears in debt for their high-tech boats and equipment cannot reverse this trend; they have to go on fishing. Governments could cut subsidies to fishers, and above all to the bottom-trawlers that are systematically turning the floors of the world's oceans to mud, but they are unwilling to face the protests of well-organized fishing lobbies.
The systematic destruction of the world's fisheries will continue unless some body equivalent to the International Whaling Commission takes charge, and how likely is that?
Not very. Or at least an International Fisheries Commission with global regulatory authority is only likely to be accepted, as the IWC was, when all the commercial stocks have already collapsed.
Yet fast-breeding fish can recover far faster than whales: as little as five years would allow most fish stocks to recover if a moratorium were imposed. And it wouldn't have to be done in every area at once; most stocks are quite local.
The world's fishing fleet needs to be reduced by at least two-thirds, bottom-trawling must be banned outright, and widespread fishing moratoriums for endangered species and even for whole areas need to be imposed for periods of five or even 10 years.
Unfortunately, the minimum measures needed to prevent ecocide in the oceans would cause major short-term disruption and throw millions out of work, so they probably won't be taken.
It will be much easier politically to ignore what is happening now and let the collapse happen later, on somebody else's watch.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalistwhose articles are published in 45 countries.