A Look at Whaling and the International Whaling Commission

Humane Society International

Pre-industrial whaling, conducted from the 12th century through 1868, was a means of subsistence and local commerce for various cultures. The hunts were conducted using sailing ships, small boats, and hand-thrown weapons. Whale meat was used for nutrition in some cultures, while whale oil, bone, and baleen were used for lighting, heating oil, corsets, umbrellas, and a variety of other uses in others.

With the advent of steam ships and then diesel engines, however, whaling entered a new phase. By 1926, whaling was conducted with huge fleets of boats carrying explosive harpoons, and whales were killed by the tens of thousands each year. Modern whaling techniques led to the widespread decimation of many stocks of great whales throughout the world’s oceans. Commercial whaling was so successful that by the 1950s and 1960s, many companies were driven to bankruptcy because there were so few whales left.

The birth of the IWC

Recognizing that whale stocks had been severely reduced by overzealous killing, whaling nations eventually banded together to sign the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, which created the International Whaling Commission in 1946. Initially, the IWC did not fulfill its mandate; it functionally oversaw the continuing destruction of whale stocks. Although kill quotas were set and trade was supposedly controlled, for 40 years whalers routinely exceeded their allowed take. The IWC had neither the political will nor the legal authority to override excessively high quotas or to police inaccurate reporting of the numbers of whales killed.

By the early 1960s, blue whale populations were so devastated that the 1962–1963 season reported killing what is now believed to have been 60 percent of the estimated Antarctic population. Armed with this knowledge, scientific advisors at the 1963 IWC meeting recommended an immediate, drastic reduction in the killing of all whales in the Antarctic. The advisors warned that the blue whale might already have been hunted beyond the point of recovery and that any level of continued killing would significantly increase the risk of extinction. Japan refused to accept the report and demanded that certain areas remain open to hunting. In the 1964–1965 season, Japan’s 15 floating-factory expeditions operating with 172 catcher-boats were able to find and kill a mere 20 blue whales. In 1965, the blue whale received complete protection throughout the Antarctic. The killing stopped, but only because the animal was commercially extinct.

Once the blue whale was placed off limits, whaling nations more aggressively hunted the smaller species, such as fin, sei, and sperm whales. By the 1970s, Japan and the then-Soviet Union, two remaining high-seas whaling nations, turned to the minke whale, a species seldom hunted because of its relatively small size (approximately 35 feet). They needed to kill thousands upon thousands of these small whales to make up for the loss of their larger cousins.

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