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The Truth about Whaling

| Audrey Lee
Topics: International Whaling Commission, Whales, Whaling

Audrey Lee is a writer living in Singapore.  This is her first blog for the International Marine Mammal Project.


What is whaling?

Whaling is the practice of hunting and killing whales by humans for multiple purposes and has been going on for more than a thousand years. Throughout the centuries, whaling  became increasingly intense and widespread, especially with the development of the exploding harpoon and better boat engines to chase down the whales. In the 1960s, due to over-hunting, most large whale populations collapsed.  A moratorium on commercial hunting of whales was finally put in place by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in late 1986. But some countries continue to hunt whales for profit, notably Iceland, Japan, and Norway.

Even though actions are being taken and bans are being placed, the number of whales in the wild has reached a critically low number due to over-whaling, and at least seven of the 13 large whale species are either endangered or vulnerable even after many years of protection.


Why did humans hunt whales in the past?

In the early days of commercial hunting, whales have been hunted for many products including bones, blubber (oil), the “whalebone” (baleen), and spermaceti, which refers to the oil in the head of sperm whales used to make candles and cosmetics.  Some cultures also used the meat, although most did not.

Whale oil obtained from sperm whales, right whales, and bowhead whales was especially in high demand. A single large sperm whale could yield as much as three tons of sperm oil. However, the use of whale oil declined in the mid-1800's as kerosene and other petroleum products started replacing its use.

Indigenous people also hunted whales because of their meet to fulfil their basic survival needs. For thousands of years, the climate in Greenland was too cold for many people, including the Eskimos and the indigenous people to grow their own vegetables. Whale meat, other marine mammals, and fish became the main source of food for them, being rich in niacin, iron, and protein.


Why are whales still being hunted today?

Today, modern whaling is conducted primarily for meat in commercial whaling. Whales are also being killed in a misguided effort to reduce competition for fish, and several small cetaceans like smaller whales, dolphins, and porpoise species are hunted for the use as a bait to catch fish, especially sharks.

However, the first claim is arguable. Fish is not the only thing that whales eat. In fact, whales eat a varied diet, including plankton, krill, and also small fishes. Most whales do not eat any commercially valuable fish species.

Some species of toothed whales are also hunted in some communities for their teeth, which are used as currency.


Which countries still hunt whales?

Despite the ban placed by IWC in 1986 to stop commercial whaling, some countries still refuse to end their whaling operations.

Japan is one of them. Immediately after the whaling ban came into effect, Japan launched its scientific whaling program, using it as a cover-up for its ongoing commercial whaling operation.

Meat from these whales, which were supposedly killed for “science”, is then sold in food markets or given away free or at low costs to schools and hospitals to encourage the consumption of whale meat.

The Japanese whaling fleet departs twice a year and they have been given a quota of the number of whales they can kill – 200 minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 100 sei whales, and 10 sperm whales in the North Pacific (a summer fishery) and 333 minke whales in the Antartic Ocean during the winter months (summer in the Antarctic) – under the guise of scientific research. However, vessels have been killing up to nearly a thousand minke whales and 50 fin whales each year in the Antarctic before the International Court of Justice ruled that it was illegal.  Japan re-started their scientific whaling in the Antarctic with the lower quota of 333 per year.

Like Japan, Iceland initially conducted a “scientific” whaling programme. Then in 1992, it withdrew from the IWC and later re-joined it again in 2004. Iceland included a clause in its re-entry that spoke out in objection to the whaling ban, a dubious legal claim that has been challenged.

In 2006, Iceland resumed commercial whaling, targeting minke and fin whales, and, in 2010 alone, Iceland killed 148 endangered fin whales and 60 minke whales in the North Atlantic.

Norway is another country that still allows whaling. From 1993 onwards, Norway has used a loophole in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which allowed them to resume hunting whales, especially minke whales, by filing an objection to the whaling moratorium similar to Iceland’s objection.

Norway sets its own quota for the number of whales they are permitted to kill for commercial reasons. This number has been increasing each year, from being allowed to kill 600 mike whales in 2002 to more than a thousand today.


How do they kill the whales?

The Animal Welfare Institute believes all whaling to be inherently cruel. Even the most advanced whaling methods cannot guarantee an immediate death or ensure that targeted animals will not feel any pain or distress before they die.  It is quite different from humane slaughter laws that provide some protection for livestock.

Many modern whalers use harpoons fired from the bow of a whaling vessel. Harpoons have been used for more than a thousand years to capture not only whales but large fishes as well.

Modern harpoons are usually fitted with penthrite grenades that will penetrate about 12 inches (one foot) into the body before they explode, releasing claw-like protrusions into the flesh. The initial blast is supposed to cause enough brain damage to kill or knock the whale out for a few seconds. However, depending on where the harpoon hits the whale’s body, the whale may suffer from trauma or blood loss but not die immediately.

Often, when the whale survives the initial grenade harpoon, a high-powered rifle is used as a secondary killing method. After harpooning, the animal is hauled onto the ship using a line attached to the harpoon, with the grenade’s claws biting into the flesh of the animal. Sometimes the harpoon line might break due to heavy seas or other causes, and the struck whale is lost to the ocean as they bleed to death.

For animals who have not been stunned or killed by then, we can only imagine the excruciating pain and distress they have to feel. Whaling is a cruel and unnecessary activity that must be stopped. Commercial whaling is banned, trade in whale products is forbidden and demand for whale meat is falling. Yet, every year Japan, Norway and Iceland still kill around 1,500 whales.

There is no humane way to kill a whale, and they are forced to die a slow and painful death. Stop this pointless slaughter of one of the earth’s most majestic creatures.


The Internatioal Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute is urging the Japan government to end the killing of whales and dolphins permanently or the issue will haunt thte government during the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.   Many Japanese activists are standing up and opposing harm to dolphins and whales.