Lex Rigby traces the origins of commercial whaling and the worldwide efforts to prevent it, leading to today’s near-total moratorium on this abhorrent trade
Whaling has a long, complicated history, with the earliest depictions of humans killing whales dating as far back as 6,000 BCE.
Whether it was the Ainu, Inuit, Native Americans or the Basques that started hunting and trading whale products is unclear, but today just three nations continue the practice commercially – Iceland, Japan and Norway – in contravention of the 1986 moratorium or temporary ban.
In some parts of the world, whaling is bound to cultural identity and ‘subsistence whaling’, it is argued, plays an important role in the lives of native peoples from Denmark (Greenland), Russia (Chukotka), St Vincent and the Grenadines (Bequia) and the United States (Alaska and the Makah Tribe of Washington State).
For this reason, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), established in 1946 to oversee the whaling industry, categorises indigenous hunts differently to commercial whaling and imposes catch limits rather than subjecting them to an embargo.
History of industrial whaling
In the 11th century, hunters initially targeted right whales, particularly northern right whales, who are still one of the most endangered species of all the great whales.
It’s thought that their name derived from the notion that Balaena Australis were the ‘right’ whales to hunt, as they often swim close to shore and float when they’re killed.
The Southern right whale (Eubalaena Australis) has also faced population depletion as a result of whaling practices. Photo © Julian Gunther via Getty Images
It seems logical, but others suggest it might simply be that they were considered ‘proper’ or ‘true’ whales.
However, it’s more likely an example of nominative determinism since the earliest references to right whales offer no explanation at all.
Yet right whales weren’t the only targets. In the 18th century, demand for whale blubber to lubricate machinery and light homes was on the rise.
The Industrial Revolution was upon us and whales were paying the price. Populations of humpback and sperm whales were decimated for soap, perfume, clothing (whale bone corsets and hoop dresses), fishing hooks and meat as well as oil and illuminants.
Then came the development of steam powered ships and explosive-tipped harpoons, which transformed the commercial whaling industry.
Such technological advancements enabled hunters to chase the faster blue and fin whales, exploiting whale congregations further and further afield.
Developments in whaling weapons like harpoons contributed to the rapid depletion of whale populations, further from shore. Photo © gerasimov174 via Adobe Stock
By the 19th century, coastal populations of whale species had depleted around the world and attention turned to Antarctica.
Huge concentrations of feeding whales became a highly lucrative target throughout the early 1900s; scientists estimate that more whales were hunted during this period than in the whole of the previous four centuries combined.
How is whaling regulated?
By the mid-20th century, most of our great whale species were in danger; pushed closer and closer towards extinction due to overhunting.
The lack of regulation and cooperation for the conservation of migratory species, that cross international boundaries, was problematic and during the lengthy battle to find consensus, tens of thousands more whales were needlessly killed.
Throughout the 1930s, various nations attempted to bring order to the industry with little success.
Neither the 1931 Geneva Convention for Regulation of Whaling nor the 1937 International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling were effective, but each provided the framework for the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW).
This was spearheaded by the USA and signed by 15 nations in Washington, DC, on 3rd December, 1946.
Tens of thousands of whales needlessly lost their lives while various nations battled to agree on regulation of commercial whaling. Photo © Kerstin Meyer via Getty Images
Under the terms of the ICRW to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”, the IWC was formed.
They became the decision-making body and were tasked with imposing regulations on catch limits, whaling methods and protected areas, as well as the right to carry out scientific research involving the killing of whales, supported by three-quarter majority votes from member states.
What does IWC mean for whales?
Although participation in the IWC is not limited to states involved in whaling, it served as more of a ‘whalers club’ at the outset; set up by whalers, for whalers.
It imposed few restrictions, often setting unsustainable catch limits and failing to enforce compliance when quotas were exceeded, which happened frequently.
It’s a familiar and depressing story. Despite the IWC’s best intentions, such shortfalls and lack of clear oversight led to the continued destruction of whale species, especially around Antarctica – where an enforcement vacuum became most evident.
Only three nations now allow commercial whaling, making the sight of rusting and unused whaling boats like this one a more common, and welcome, occurrence. Photo © ChrisOgden1 via Getty Images
During the 1961/62 Southern Ocean whaling season, over 66,000 whales were killed.
With growing pressure from the global anti-whaling movement during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as several non-whaling and anti-whaling states joining the IWC to gain majority over pro-whaling nations, the IWC began reforming its animal welfare policies and incorporating new scientific data on whales in its proposed regulations.
By July 1982, a vote to implement a pause on commercial whaling was won by the necessary three-quarters majority and still stands today.
The decision stated, “catch limits for the killing for commercial purposes of whales from all stocks for the 1986 coastal and the 1985/86 pelagic seasons and thereafter shall be zero.”
The measure passed by 25 votes to seven, with five abstentions and formal objections raised by Japan, Norway, Peru and Russia (formally the Soviet Union).
Japan and Peru later withdrew their objections, the former due to political pressure from the US who, attempting to combat Japanese overfishing, threatened to reduce their fishing quota in US waters.
The earliest depictions of humans killing whales dating as far back as 6,000 BCE. Image source: Gartenlaube 1869, courtesy of Grafissimo via Getty Images
Regardless, by 1988, the US revoked Japan’s fishing licenses anyway, propelling them into the sphere of scientific whaling – a loophole they continued to exploit until 2019 when they terminated their membership of the IWC entirely and reinstated commercial operations in coastal waters.
Which 3 countries are still whaling?
Despite the global ban on whaling coming into effect in 1986, the practice has not stopped entirely.
Three nations still take part in commercial whaling; Norway, Iceland, and Japan.
Norway and Iceland continue commercial whaling openly after lodging official objections to the moratorium, while Japan and Iceland also continue to hunt under the pretence of ‘scientific whaling’.
Has the whaling moratorium been successful?
Since the moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect, some whale populations have made a steady comeback, but others have not.
From a pre-whaling population of about 250,000 blue whales in the southern hemisphere, there are now estimated to be fewer than 2,000 remaining.
Not all whale species have made a comeback since 1982, with fewer than 2,000 blue whales estimated to exist today. Photo © Gerard Soury via Getty Images
With increasing threats from ocean plastic pollution, habitat loss and global heating, their future is still bleak.
Collectively, whales play a key role in oceanic ecosystems, providing a source of nutrients to oxygen-producing phytoplankton in their poop and taking harmful carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, which they store in their bodies.
Ultimately, save the whale campaigns are not just about ending the bloody persecution of these enigmatic species, but also ensuring a future for our planet, and in turn, all humanity.
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