OSLO (Reuters) - Whales and dolphins should get "human rights" to life and liberty because of mounting evidence of their intelligence, a group of conservationists and experts in philosophy, law and ethics said Sunday.
Japan, Norway and Iceland, the main whaling nations, oppose such arguments that would outlaw hunting or even keeping the mammals in marine parks. They have long said there is no real evidence that they are smarter, for instance, than cows or pigs.
Participants at a University of Helsinki conference said ever more studies show the giant marine mammals have human-like self-awareness, an ability to communicate and organize complex societies, making them similar to some great apes.
"We affirm that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing," they said in a declaration after a two-day meeting led by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).
Thomas White, director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in California who was at the Helsinki talks, said dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability rare in mammals that humans only acquire at about 18 months of age.
"Whaling is ethically unacceptable," he told Reuters. "They have a sense of self that we used to think that only human beings have."
Hal Whitehead, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Canada and an expert on deep-water whales, said there was more evidence that whales have human-like culture.
He said that sperm whales have sonars to find fish that are so powerful that they could permanently deafen others nearby if used at full blast. Yet the whales do not use sonars as weapons, showing what Whitehead called a human-like "sense of morality."
"It's like a group of human hunters armed with guns," he told Reuters. "There's a clear sense of how the sonar can be used."
Nations in the International Whaling Commission will debate a proposal to approve limited hunts for 10 years by the main whaling nations at a meeting next month, relaxing a 1986 moratorium imposed after many species came close to extinction.
"We want a shift to putting the individual at the center of conservation," said Nicholas Entrup, of the WDCS. That would mean giving minke whales, relatively plentiful and most often hunted, the same protection as endangered northern right whales.
But one expert biologist, who was not at the conference, said many researchers had wrongly concluded that whales and dolphins were smart because they have big brains.
"There's nothing to separate them from other mammals -- seals, lions or tigers," Paul Manger of Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand, told Reuters. They had evolved big brains largely to keep warm in the chill waters.
Saying whales were not especially bright was not the same as advocating hunts, he said. "We protect fish stocks even though no one argues that they are intelligent," he said.
(Editing by Maria Golovnina)