About the International Whaling Commission

Humane Society International

  • A Minke whale, one of the species targeted by whaling nations. Daniel Benhaim/iStockphoto

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), signed in Washington, D.C., on December 2, 1946. The Convention was intended to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and the regulation of commercial and aboriginal whaling. Yet, in its early attempts to regulate whaling, the IWC did nothing more than sanction whaling, even when the numbers of whales killed were clearly jeopardizing populations.

For decades following the establishment of the IWC, hundreds of thousands of whales were slaughtered, seriously depleting all whale stocks. Underreporting of kills was common during that time, and scientists lacked—and in fact still lack—adequate methods to estimate whale population size. After a worldwide outcry against the killing of whales and after intense efforts by The HSUS and others, the IWC voted to ban commercial whaling in1982, a ban that became effective in 1986. That ban remains in place today for two reasons: whale populations have not yet recovered, and there is no effective mechanism in place to safely or humanely regulate the killing of these magnificent marine mammals.

Despite the ban, Japan, Iceland and Norway continue to kill whales. The ban on commercial whaling also does not affect aboriginal subsistence whaling, which is permitted by Denmark, the Russian Federation, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United States. Nor does this ban cover small cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), as Japan and a handful of other nations refuse to accept the IWC’s jurisdiction over small cetaceans.

A majority of IWC member countries, along with animal protection and environmental organizations, believe that the treaty has evolved into a conservation agreement that allows for greater protection for whales from environmental, commercial, and other types of threats. In contrast, Japan, Norway, Iceland and other whaling nations maintain that the sole purpose of the IWC is to promote the orderly development of the whaling industry.

In fact, the main duty of the IWC is to keep under review—and revise as necessary—the measures laid down in the Schedule to the Convention, which govern conservation and whaling throughout the world. These measures, among other things, provide for the complete protection of certain species; allow the designation of specified areas as whale sanctuaries; set limits on the number and size of whales that may be taken; prescribe open and closed seasons and areas for whaling; and prohibit the taking of suckling calves and females accompanied by calves.

The IWC is a political body, and political and financial pressures influence the direction of its policies and mission. A singular lack of reporting and enforcement has plagued the IWC from the start, and unfortunately, scientists who most actively make recommendations concerning the stability of whale stocks to the IWC are often far from unbiased—scientists often have political agendas, just like other people do. Their findings seem to do more to protect their political appointments than to protect whales.

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