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The crew of the oceanographic research vessel "Princesse Alice," of Albert Grimaldi (later Prince ) pose while flensing a catch
The crew of the oceanographic research vessel "Princesse Alice," of Albert Grimaldi (later Prince Albert I of Monaco) pose while flensing a catch

Whaling is the hunting and killing of whales. Historically, poor conservation management by many nations led to far more whales being killed than could be sustained and to near extinction of several species. Whales are killed by firing a harpoon near the head of the animal. An explosive charge inside the harpoon then explodes beneath the whale's skin, killing it.

International cooperation on whaling regulation started in 1931 and a number of bi- and multi-lateral agreements now exist in this area, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) of 1946 being the most important. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded by the ICRW for the purpose of giving management advice to the member nations on the basis of the work of the Scientific Committee.

The members of the IWC voted in 1982 to enter into a moratorium on all commercial whaling beginning in the 1985-86 season. Since 1992, the IWC Scientific Committee has requested the of IWC that it be allowed to give quota proposals for some whale stocks, but this has so far been refused by the IWC. Norway legitimately continues to hunt Minke Whales commercially, as it lodged an objection to the moratorium.


The history of whaling

Main article: History of whaling

Man has hunted whales since time immemorial. The oldest records of whale hunts are rock carvings found in South Korea that date back to 6000 BC. Since that time, whalers have grown ever more technically sophisticated. Historical whaling can be divided into four overlapping eras and geographical locations.

The Basque fishery : Hunting in the North Atlantic by Europeans ; the Atlantic Northern Right Whale was a major target. (1400-1700) The Atlantic Arctic fishery : Hunting moves north to around Spitzbergen, Greenland and in between. (1600-1900) The Pacific fishery : American whalers move into Pacific ; targeting the Pacific Northern Right Whale. (1800-) The Sperm Whale fishery : As "fast fishing" techniques improve in the eighteenth century American whalers learn that the Sperm Whale contains valuable oil and exploit it around the world. The rorqual fishery : In the late nineteenth century the explosive harpoon is used for the first time and is devastingly effective in enabling the whaling of the very large rorquals in significant numbers. Species are hunted in all oceans by British, American, Japanese, Icelandic and Norwegian whalers amongst others. Huge "factory ships" which carried out the processing of the meat whilst still at sea enabled whalers to stay at sea for months on end. Population numbers fell by 80-90% across the major rorqual species. By 1946 the international community decided that the destruction should not go on and the newly-founded United Nations passed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. More and more species became protected from commercial hunting in the 1960s and 70s. In 1982 the International Whaling Commission members agreed a general moratorium of commercial whaling that was implemented in 1986.

For full details see the History of whaling article

Modern Whaling

Although whale oil has little commercial value today, whale meat has come to be considered a delicacy, particularly in Japan. The primary species hunted today is the Minke Whale, the smallest of the baleen whales. Recent scientific surveys estimate a population of 180,000 in the central and North East Atlantic and 700,000 around Antarctica.

International Whaling Commission

Main article: International Whaling Commission

Modern whaling is regulated by the International Whaling Commission, set up in 1946 by the United Nations International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. On July 23, 1982 the IWC members voted to impose an open-ended moratorium on commercial whaling. Article V(3) gives states a 90-day period to object to decisions taken by the commision. Norway did object to the decision and further regards it as ultra vires (i.e. null and void), since the decision was not based on advice from the Scientific Committee and is, they say, in contradiction with the purposes set forth in the preamble of ICRW. Norway was thus able to continue a hunt if it wished, and has done so since 1992.

In 2003, the IWC began a multi-year survey in Antarctic waters to update current population estimates. Norway has been conducting multi-year surveys each year since 1995 as required by their membership in the IWC. These research programmes might open the way for the resumption of commercial whaling in the future. However several governments influential in the IWC, in particular those of Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have hardened their opposition to whaling in recent years and may continue to attempt to block proposals from pro-whaling nations for a commercial catch regardless of the results of these surveys.

In addition to Norway's commercial whaling, IWC regulations allow for two further types of whaling: whaling for the purposes of scientific research, and subsistence whaling in aboriginal communities. These are described further below.

Research whaling

Article VIII of the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling states

1. Notwithstanding anything contained in this Convention any Contracting Government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit, and the killing, taking, and treating of whales in accordance with the provisions of this Article shall be exempt from the operation of this Convention. Each Contracting Government shall report at once to the Commission all such authorizations which it has granted. Each Contracting Government may at any time revoke any such special permit which it has granted.
2. Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government by which the permit was granted.
3. Each Contracting Government shall transmit to such body as may be designated by the Commission, in so far as practicable, and at intervals of not more than one year, scientific information available to that Government with respect to whales and whaling, including the results of research conducted pursuant to paragraph 1 of this Article and to Article IV.
4. Recognizing that continuous collection and analysis of biological data in connection with the operations of factory ships and land stations are indispensable to sound and constructive management of the whale fisheries, the Contracting Governments will take all practicable measures to obtain such data.

Japanese whaling is carried out under the auspices of this Article.

Aboriginal subsistence whaling

Main article: Aboriginal whaling

Alongside commercial whaling and whaling for research, a third type of whaling is recognised by the IWC. This third type of whaling, called aboriginal subsistence whaling, is allowed under the terms of the whaling moratorium if an aboriginial group has a tradition and culture of whaling. The IWC says that such whaling must

"ensure risks of extinction not seriously increased (highest priority);"
"enable harvests in perpetuity appropriate to cultural and nutritional requirements;"
"maintain stocks at highest net recruitment level and if below that ensure they move towards it."

The countries which practice aboriginal subsistence whaling are Denmark (Greenlandic Inuit), Russia (Siberian groups), St. Vincent and the Grenadines (one man) and the United States (Alaskan Inuit). Canadian Inuit also carry out whaling, though Canada is not a member of the IWC. Both animal rights groups and some pro-whaling nations (such as Japan) say that not all whaling carried out in the name of subsistence, is actually for that purpose.

Japan says that recognising these aboriginal claims but not the claims of Japanese groups with an ancient history of whaling is inconsistent and indeed "racist". For full details see the Aboriginal whaling article.

Whaling nations

Faroe Islands

Around one thousand Long-finned Pilot Whales are killed in the annual whale "grind" by Faroese fisherman each year. The current practice continues a tradition going back to the tenth century. However anti-whaling campaigners campaign particularly vociferously against Faroese whaling - saying that the method of killing is cruel. For a full discussion see Whaling in the Faroe Islands.


Iceland has a long tradition of subsistence whaling. Indeed whaling of one form or another has been conducted from the island since it became populated more than eleven hundred years ago. The early reliance of whales is reflected in the Icelandic language - hvalreki is the word for both "beached whale" and "jackpot".

Iceland allowed Norwegian whalers to set up thirteen whaling stations around the island in 1883. By 1915, 17,000 whales had been taken from Icelandic waters, eradicating Northern Right Whales and Gray Whales in the area. The Icelandic Government banned whaling in its waters to allow time for population recovery. The law was repealed in 1928.

By 1935 Icelanders had set up their own commercial whaling operation for the first time. They hunted mostly Sei, Fin and Minke Whales. In the early years of this operation Blue, Sperm and Humpback Whales were also hunted, but this was soon prohibited due to decimated numbers. Between 1935 and 1985 Icelandic whalers killed around 20,000 animals in total.

Unlike Norway, Iceland did not protest against the IWC moratorium and was thus limited to whaling conducted under the name of scientific research. Between 1986 and 1989 around 60 animals per year were taken. However under strong pressure from the international community, not convinced that the kills were truly for scientific purposes (particularly because the meat was sold to Japan) Iceland ceased whaling altogether in 1989. Following the 1991 refusal of the IWC to accept its Scientific Committees recommendation to allow limited whaling, Iceland left the IWC.

With significant support from its people, Iceland rejoined the IWC in 2002. This allowed it to restart a program of whaling in the late summer of 2003. Although the program is, like the Japanese program, formally classified as for scientific purposes, few accept that this is a realistic representation of Icelandic whaling. The research will primarily consist of measuring fish stocks in the area from which whales have been removed and the strongest advocates for a resumed hunt are fisherman concerned that whales are taking too many fish. The hunt was supported by three-quarters of the Icelandic population. By the end of the hunting season, Iceland had taken 36 Minkes from a quota of 38. More whales are expected to be taken in subsequent years; this years take being called a "feasibility study" by pro-whalers. In 2004 the hunting is to be extended to include the spring and early summer and around 100 whales will be caught.


Main article: Whaling in Japan

In 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, Japanese whalers took 5 Sperm, 39 Sei, 50 Bryde's and 150 Minke Whales in the northern catch area and 440 Minke Whales in the southern catchment area. The catch was carried out under the IWC's special licence for whaling research.

Japan says it would like to resume commercial whaling. Opponents of the Japanese hunt say the current hunt is a commercial hunt by another name. Japan says that the hunt is scientifically valuable.

For full details: see the Whaling in Japan article

In recent years, through its fisheries aid funding, the Japanese Fisheries Agency has been amassing a group of small, impoversihed island states such as Tuvalu, Palau and Grenada (among many others, plus African countries such as Guinea, Benin and even Asian, landlocked Mongolia!) to create a pro-whaling block in the International Whaling Commission, in an attempt to " buy" its way back to commercial whaling. Such attempts have been hampered so far by the scarcity of further sovereign nations willing to surrender to what has been called the " Yen Diplomacy".


Norway is the only country to have registered an objection to the International Whaling Commission moratorium, and is thus not bound by it. In 1993 Norway resumed an openly commercial catch, following a period of five years where a small catch was made, justified by the Norwegian industry as for scientific purposes. The catch is made solely from the North-east Atlantic Minke Whale population, which is estimated to consist of about 110,000 animals. The number of whales caught by Norwegian whalers has been growing steadily in recent years:

1993 226
1994 280
1995 218
1996 388
1997 503
1998 625
1999 589
2000 487
2001 552 (Quota 549)
2002 634 (Quota 671)
2003 670 (Quota 711)
2004 (Quota 670)

(Sources: Most sources quote the High North Alliance, a pro-whaling lobby operated by Norwegian whalers. Quotas are set by the Norwegian government).

Prior to the moratorium, Norway caught around 2,000 Minkes per year. The North Atlantic hunt is divided into five areas and lasted from early May to late August. Norway exports a limited amount of whale meat to the Faroes and Iceland. It has been attempting to export to Japan for several years, though this has been hampered by legal protests and concerns in the Japanese domestic market about the effects of pollution on Atlantic whales.

Those opposed to whaling say that this export is a violation of the spirit of the IWC moratorium, which the High North Alliance says it adheres to. Commenting in June 2003, British fisheries minister Elliot Morley said "We believe the Norwegian whaling is against the spirit of the moratorium. They say it's legal, and it's true they registered an objection when the moratorium was agreed by the commission, so under IWC rules they're allowed to continue hunting. But we think it goes against the spirit of the ban, and certainly their attempts to export the meat are illegal. They're desperate to find an export market, and that shows the whaling isn't for domestic consumption - and it's not sustainable."

In May 2004 the Norwegian Parliament passed a resolution to considerably increase the number of Minkes hunted each year - up to 1,800 animals per year by 2006. The move would have to be agreed to the fisheries ministry that sets the quota. The fisheries ministry also proposed a satellite tracking programme to monitor numbers of other species as possible prelude to resuming hunting of them. Commenting on this proposal Rune Frovik of the High North Alliance said "The proposal appears to apply in principle to virtually any species except Bowheads and Blue Whales, though in practice I think the government is most interested in assessing stocks of Fins, Humpbacks, pilot whales and several dolphins."

References: BBC report on Norwegian Parliament proposals

The arguments for and against whaling

Conservation status

The sharpest point of debate over whaling today concerns the conservation status of hunted species. Today there is widespread agreement around the world that it is morally wrong to exterminate a species of animal for food. The past mismanagement of whale stocks has depeleted the overall whale population to a significant extent and four species of whale are still endangered. As the graph to the right indicates, the conservation status of whales are strongly correlated with the past hunt. Thus it is unlikely, for instance, that the Blue Whale will be hunted again for the foreseeable future because its population levels have remain stagnant since the hunting ban on them in the 1960s.

Other species on the other hand, in particular the Minke Whale, have never been considered endangered and still other species have shown signs of recovery. It is these species of whales that whalers wish to hunt commercially, believing that with modern techniques a hunt of these species could be sustained without damage to the ecosystem.

Because those opposed to whaling believe that a return to full-scale commercial whaling will lead to economic concerns overriding those of conservation, there is a continuing battle between each side as to how to describe the current state of each species. For instance, conservationists are pleased that the Sei Whale continues to be listed as endangered but Japan says that the species has swelled in number from 9,000 in 1978 to about 28,000 in 2002 and so its catch of 50 Sei Whales per year is safe, and that the classification of endangered should be reconsidered for the north Pacific population.

Another argument that pervades the debate over whaling is the incompetence of the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee to actually establish what is a " sustainable" catch limit for whales. Over time, attempts to do it "scientifically" have resulted in utter failure leading to the depletion of all species and stocks targeted. This is mainly due to the preference of the " whaling scientific etsablishment" at the IWC for complex theoretical formulas that do not consoder actual biological parameters of most species - simply because these are usually incomplete or unavailable.

A complete list of whale conservation statuses as listed by the IUCN is given below. Note that, in the case of the Blue and Gray Whales, the IUCN distinguishes the statuses of various populations. These populations, whilst not regarded as separate species, are considered sufficiently genetically different to warrant conserving each.


Critically Endangered



Lower Risk
(Conservation Dependent)

Lower Risk
(Near Threatened)

Lower Risk
(Least Concern)

Gray Whale
North-east Pacific population

Additionally the IUCN notes that the Atlantic population of Gray Whales was made extinct early around the turn of the eighteenth century.

Organic growth; Method of killing

Farming whales in captivity has never been attempted and would almost certainly be logistically impossible. Thus unlike many the farming of many animals, whale meat is grown entirely organically. However whales are killed using explosive harpoons, which puncture the skin of the whale and then explode inside the body. Anti-whaling campaigners say this method of killing is cruel, particularly if carried out by unexperienced whaler because the whale can take several minutes to die. In March 2004, Whalewatch, an umbrella group of 140 conservation and animal welfare groups from 55 countries published a report, Troubled Waters, whose main conclusion was that whales cannot be guaranteed to be killed humanely and that all whaling should be stopped. They quoted figures that said 20% of Norwegian- and 60% of Japanese-killed whales failed to die as soon as they had been harpooned. John Opdahl of the Norwegian embassy in London, responded by saying that Norwegian authorities worked with the IWC to develop the most humane killing methods. He said that the average time taken for a whale to die having been shot was the same as or less as those animals killed by big game hunters on safari. Troubled Waters is available here in PDF format. Whalers also say that this free roaming lifestyle followed by a quick death is less cruel than the long-term suffering of battery farmed animals also used to provide food.

The pro-whaling High North Alliance points to apparent inconsistencies in the policies of some anti-whaling nations. For instance, the United Kingdom allows the commercial shooting of deer without these shoots adhering to the standards of British slaughterhouses, but says that whalers must meet these standards as a pre-condition before they would support whaling. A High North article on the issue

The economic argument

Many researchers say that the whales that are killed are those that are most curious about boats and thus the easiest to approach and kill. However these individuals are also the most valuable to the whale-watching industry, as these "friendly" whales easiest means of providing an experience to their customers. The argument over whether whales are worth more dead than alive is complex and unfinished. Naturally the whale-watching industry, and those opposed to whaling on moral grounds, claim that once all benefits to local economies such as hotels, restaurants and other tourist amenities are factored in, and the fact that a whale can only be killed once but watched many times, the economic balance weighs firmly down on the side of not hunting whales.

This economic argument is a particular bone of contention in Iceland, which has amongst the most-developed whale-watching operations in the world and where hunting of Minke Whales began again in August 2003. The argument is less applicable to the Antarctic waters, where Japan wishes to hunt as Minke Whales are more abundant there and there are far fewer whale-watching cruises.

Whales are the largest animals in the world, a single whale kill provides more meat than with any other animal. Whaling and its associated activities continue to provide employment and economic stimulant for fishery, logistic, restaurant and other related industries in developed countries.

However, many developing countries such as Brazil, Argentina and South Africa argue that whalewatching, a growing billion-dollar industry, provides more revenue and more equitative distribution of profits than the possible resumption of commercial whaling by pelagic fleets from faraway developed countries. These countries are defending their right to the non-lethal use of whale resources and refuse to bow to the pressures of the whaling industry to allow the resumption of commercial whaling in their regions.

In particular, not a single country in the Southern Hemisphere is currently whaling or intends to, and proposals to permanently forbid whaling South of the Equator are defended by the abovementioned developing countries plus Peru, Uruguay, Australia, and New Zealand, which strongly object to the continuation of Japanese whaling in the SAntarctic under the guise of " scientific catches".


The issue of the extent of cetacean intelligence is also hotly debated. Anti-whaling campaigners and nations say that cetaceans are amongst most intelligent of all non-humans and thus it is morally wrong to kill them for food. However, those in favour of whaling point out that pigs are also amongst the most intelligent of mammals and say that it thus inconsistent to claim that pigs should be used for food, and whales not, other considerations notwithstanding. Thus, in the view of pro-whalers, if whaling is rejected on grounds of intelligence, then so should the eating of other animals leaving vegetarianism as the only option. High North Alliance view on whaling ethics

Most of the research on cetacean intelligence has been behavioral inference tests carried out on dolphins. For example, the Bottlenose Dolphin was able to recognize their image in a mirror. But in other research, they scored lower than ferrets in a test of learning set formation. Generally, both dolpine and pig's intelligence are rated higher than dogs. It is nearly impossible to duplicate these type of tests for whales on the other hand.


Whalers say that whaling is an essential condition for the successful operation of commercial fisheries, and thus plentiful availability of food from the sea that consumers have become accustomed to. This argument is made particularly forcefully in Atlantic fisheries, for example the cod-capelin system in the Barents Sea. A Minke Whale eats 10 kg fish meat per kg, which puts a heavy predation pressure on commercial species directly or indirectly. Thus whalers say that an annual cull of whales is needed in order that fish be available for humans. Anti-whaling campaigners say that the pro-whaling argument is inconsistent: If the catch of whales is small enough not to impact overall whale numbers, it is also too small to affect fish numbers. Thus to make more fish available, they say, more whales will have to be killed to put populations at risk. The whalers argue that the purpose of culling is to keep populations in check not to put populations at risk.

Professor Daniel Pauly (credentials) and Director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia weighed into the debate in July 2004 when he presented a paper to the 2004 meeting of the IWC in Sorrento. Pauly's primary research is investigating the reasons for the decline in fish stocks in the Atlantic, under the auspices of the Sea Around Us Project. However this report was commissioned by the Humane Society International, one of anti-whaling lobbies. The report says that although cetaceans and pinnipeds are estimated to eat 600m tonnes of food per year, compared with just 150m tonnes eaten by humans (*), the type much of the food that cetaceans eat (in particular deep sea squid and krill) is not eaten by human. Moreover, the reports says, the locations where whales and humans catch fish only overlap to a small degree. In an interview with the BBC Pauly said "The bottom line is that humans and marine mammals can co-exist. There's no need to wage war on them in order to have fish to catch. And there's certainly no cause to blame them for the collapse of the fisheries. It's really cynical and irresponsible for Japan to claim that the developing countries would benefit from a cull of marine mammals. It's the rich countries that are sucking the fish out of the poor countries' own seas." In the report Pauly also considers more indirect effects of whale eating on the availability of fish for fisheries. He continues to conclude that whales are not a significant reason for diminish fish stocks.

However, the dietary behaviour of whales differ among species as well as season, location and availability of prey. For example, Sperm Whales's prey species are in general dominated by mesopelagetic squid. However, in Iceland, they are reported to consume mainly fish (Sigurjónsson, et al 1998). Minke Whales are known to eat wide range of species including krill, capeline, herring, sand lance, mackerel, but gadoids, cod, saithe and haddock (Haug et al, 1996). Mink Whales are estimated to consume 633,000 tons of Atlantic herring per year in part of Northeast Atlantic (Folkow et al, 1997). Net loss of five tones of cod and herring fishery per an extra mink whales are estimated to result in Barents Seas. (Schweder, et al, 2000)

  • Sigurjónsson, J. and Víkingsson, G.A. 1998. Seasonal abundance of and estimated prey consumption by cetaceans in Icelandic and adjacent waters. J. Northw. Atl. Fish. Sci.
  • Haug, T., Lindstrřm, U., Nilssen, K.T., Rřttingen, I. And Skaug, H.J. 1996. Diet and food availability for northeast Atalantic minke whales, Balaenoptera acutorostrata. Rep. int. Whal. Commn
  • Folkow LP, Haug T, Nilsen KT, Nordřy ES (1997) Estimated prey consumption of minke whales Balaenoptera acutorostrata in Northeast Atlantic waters in 1992-1995. Document ICES CM 1997/GG:01.
  • Schweder, T., Hagen, G.S. and Hatlebakk, E. 2000. Direct and indirect effects of minke whale abundance on cod and herring fisheries: A scenario experiment for the Greater Barents Sea. NAMMCO Scientific publications
  • BBC News report on Pauly's findings

(*) These are Pauly's figures. Researchers at the Institute for Cetacean Research gave figures of 90m tonnes for humans and 249-436m tonnes for cetaceans. Reference [1]


See also

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04