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A Sad History of Whaling

| Emilia Malachowski
Topics: International Whaling Commission, Slaughter, Whales, Whaling

Emilia Malachowski was an intern for Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project during the fall of 2016.   She is a student at the University of California at Berkeley.


The history of commercial whaling in the 20th century is a classic story of greed leading to destruction of a common international resource, and the failure of world governments to recognize the value of maintaining healthy, unexploited sentient whale populations for their own right to survive and live without harassment.

In 1946, after decades of global unregulated whale hunting, many whale species were on the brink of extinction. In response to worldwide protests, fifteen governments joined in drafting an International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in Washington, D.C. In total, 88 countries have now signed the  legal agreement calling for the establishment of the International Whaling Commission, an increase in funding for the conservation of whales, and catch limits for certain areas.

However, the agreement gave the responsibility of regulating whale catches to each individual government instead of the IWC, thus creating a loophole for many countries. The agreement also stipulated that any country seeking a permit for whaling should report to the IWC after obtaining that permit, but at this point in time permits were easily obtainable for those countries that continue to whale.

In terms of conservation, the IWC deemed short-term threats to whales to be hunting and accidental kills (through threats like bycatch in fisheries). For the long term, the IWC predicted that chemical pollution, noise pollution, disturbance and climate change would all hurt whale populations.

Despite the Convention, whales numbers continued to shrink as nations at the IWC refused to go along with proposed limits offered by the IWC Scientific Committee.  Politics even entered the deliberations of the Scientific Committee itself.

In the 1970s, an enormous anti-whaling movement took off globally. Even though a few whale species, like the gray whale, began their slow recovery from the convention in 1946, population numbers of most “commercial” species remained at a worrying level and were decreasing. This prompted the IWC, with strong support from the environmental community, including the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute, to ban all commercial whaling beginning in 1986. This was known as the commercial whaling moratorium, and it has been called one of the largest environmental legislative success stories of all time.  

However, several nations refused to support the moratorium.  Shortly after the commercial whaling moratorium took effect in 1986, Japan ignored it and continued hunting whales for profit, under the guise of issuing scientific permits to its whaling industry.  Japan set up their program for so-called scientific research yet sold the whale meat in its own markets. Today, the Japan fleet is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, and thousands of pounds of whale meat is being stored in freezer compartments because few people in Japan eat whale meat anymore.

Since then, other countries have either dropped out of the agreement, have chosen to ignore it, or have found loopholes within it. One example of such a country is Norway, who chose to follow the whaling ban up until 1993. After that, Norway filed an official objection against the moratorium in order to continue whaling. Currently, Norway sets its own catch limits but has increased the maximum amount of whales, mostly minke whales, allowed to be killed each year.  Norway has traded in whale products in contravention of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), sending whale products to Japan, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands (a dependency of Denmark).

Lastly, Iceland hunts whales today commercially also objecting  to the whale moratorium. Originally, Iceland hunted whales under the same scientific loophole that Japan uses today. In 1992, Iceland withdrew from the IWC completely but then rejoined in 2004. While rejoining, Iceland reiterated that they objected severely to the whale moratorium (a dubious legal maneuver) and in 2006, they continued their commercial whaling which targeted minke and endangered fin whales.

It has been estimated that around 45,168 whales have been killed since the 1986 ban: of these dead whales, 19,167 were killed by Japan, 10,395 were killed in Norway, and 1,086 were killed by Iceland.  Japan would likely have killed even more whales had not the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society interfered with their whaling in the Antarctic, a campaign celebrated by the Animal Planet series Whale Wars.

Other groups allowed by the Convention to hunt whales are the aboriginal communities. In 2015, these communities were allowed to take 282 bowhead whales, 620 gray whales, 181 minke whales, 10 fin whales, and 29 humpback whales, all from different locations. While some users indeed abide by aboriginal subsistence rules, such as Alaska’s Inuit, which only share out whale meat among the tribal members, other subsistence users are more dubious.  The former Soviet Union used subsistence aboriginal whaling to kill many gray whales in the North Pacific Ocean, but much of the meat actually went to feed captive foxes used in fur farms, rather than subsistence needs for people.  In Greenland, as much as half the whale meat killed may be showing up in supermarkets and tourist restaurants, rather than shared in the traditional tribal manner.

 Although whales are certainly still overexploited today, there is much hope in terms of their recovery. For example, the eastern North Pacific gray whale population was severely depleted, with numbers ranging in the low hundreds, during the early 20th century. Today, there are estimated to be around 20,000 of these whales thanks to the commercial ban. Gray whales have benefited from their habit of remaining in the coastal waters of the US, Canada, and Mexico, where they have been protected for many years.  Many (but not all) humpback whale populations around the world are growing and reaching recovery.

There is also evidence that further action needs to be taken as the western North Pacific gray whale population remains at 130 individuals, a population found around Russia’s Sakhalin Island.

Overall, for a committee that can impose no fines, permits, or penalties, the IWC has been enormously successful when pushed and pulled by the active environmental community. Looking forward, they will need to be increasingly stubborn and persistent with the countries that use loopholes in order to ensure that whales are here to stay. It is speculated that the first whales evolved around 50 million years ago; now is the time to work and fight together to ensure that politics and wealth do not lead to the demise of such a historic, unique, and majestic creature.


See our blogs for ECO, the IWC newsletter that is the voice for the whales, including commentary by Dr. Sidney Holt, Captain Paul Watson, and Dr. Paul Spong:    


ECO #1 

ECO #2  

ECO #3  

ECO #4  


Photo credit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society