Whaling and the International Whaling Commission

Facts About Whale Hunting

Man cutting fin whale meat at whaling station in Hvalfjordur Fjord, Iceland
Man cutting fin whale meat at whaling station in Hvalfjordur Fjord, Iceland. Arctic-Images/Stone/Getty Images

Whaling ended its popularity in the U.S., for the most part, by the early 1900s, so some are surprised to find out it still occurs in some parts of the world.

A Brief Background on Whaling

Whaling in the U.S. began with natives, and then colonists, taking advantage of whales that drifted ashore, or whales that swam close enough to shore that they could be killed and processed. 

As bigger, fasters ships were built, whaling increased to a point where people were dependent on whale products such as blubber and baleen.

The blubber was used for oil for lighting, cooking, heating and lubrication. Baleen was used in a variety of products such as women's corsets, umbrellas and buggy whips. 

Eventually, U.S. whale populations declined so much that whalers had to venture farther and farther from U.S. shores. By the early 1900's, many species were near extinction. Whaling continued until the late 1980's when the International Whaling Commission finally decided to place a worldwide moratorium on whaling.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC):

The IWC was formed in 1946 under the  International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Its purpose is “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry."  Eighty-eight countries are represented on the Commission.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) put a pause in whaling, or a moratorium, in place in 1982, and it became effective in 1985-86.


Who Hunts Whales, and Why?

If a country wants to hunt whales these days, there are three ways it can do so:

  • Aboriginal subsistence whaling – allows for whaling by small populations where whaling has traditionally been a part of their culture. Whales are not sold commercially. Examples: Greenland (fin and minke whales), Russia (gray and bowhead whales), St. Vincent and The Grenadines (humpback whales) and the USA (bowhead and gray whales hunted in Alaska).
  • Scientific permit whaling – a country obtains a permit to hunt whales for scientific purposes. Since 1986, Japan, Norway and Iceland have issued permits for this purpose.
    Japan has been one of the biggest proponents of whaling in recent years. Japan targets whales both in a coastal whaling program and in a controversial hunt in the Southern Ocean, primarily for minke whales. While the whales are caught to learn more about them, the meat is actually used for human consumption.
  • Objection – when the moratorium was put in place, countries could lodge an objection and continue to hunt whales. Norway is a country that lodged an objection.


How Much Power Does the International Whaling Commission Have?

The IWC meets each year to review the status of whales and whaling. Because governments can “object” to any decisions made by the IWC, the organization is thought by some not to have a lot of power. At the very least, it provides a clearinghouse for some of the most updated information on whale populations and whaling information across the world.

Culture and Controversy:

Whaling is a very controversial issue. Many countries have historically and culturally depended on whales, but many species were hunted to near extinction.

The U.S. played a large part in this, especially in our Yankee whaling days.

Some countries that traditionally had large whaling programs have now developed booming tourist industries around their marine environment, allowing them to benefit from whales without killing them.

References and Further Information: