The International History of Whaling

People first began whaling at least 4,000 years ago. Has it completely stopped?

A humpback whale underwater.

Colin Baker / Getty Images

Whales have been hunted for centuries for their meat, bones, and oil. At its peak in the 1960s, the commercial whaling industry killed over 72,000 whales a year. With the creation of the International Whaling Commission came a halt to all whaling. While the whaling moratorium was originally a temporary provision, it remains in place today. However, whaling operations continue in Japan, Norway, and Iceland.

Here, we unravel the history of whaling and the impact of whaling laws and regulations around the world.

Early History of Whaling

Research tells us that whaling began at least 4,000 years. By about 700 CE, the Basques were performing the first organized whale hunts. The hunting expertise of the Basques was later used by the English, Dutch, and Danish for their whaling efforts.

Whaling became a lucrative endeavor during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance years. The value of whaling products at the time is credited with pushing the Dutch towards naval supremacy. Eventually, whale populations around the Netherlands declined from a combination of overfishing and whales learning to avoid whaling vessels. In response, the Dutch built ships that could hunt whales further away from the coast. By the 17th century, the Netherlands was supplying all of Europe with whale oil and bones.

In the 18th century, Dutch dominance subsided as the colonial exploits of competing European countries took hold. The development of factory ships, which were capable of processing whales onboard, allowed whalers to venture further away from coastal waters. Overfishing of European waters led most whalers to move their operations to the Pacific and Indian oceans. By this time, whale products were used in a variety of products including corsets, umbrellas, and soaps.

Advances in technology led to more whale hunting. Harpoons equipped with explosive capabilities were invented by Norwegian whaler Svend Foyn in 1864. The new harpoon design killed whales faster, expediting the hunt and making whaling safer for the hunters.

Whaling in Antarctica

Whaling expanded to Antarctica's Southern Ocean in the 1900s following the construction of a whale processing station in South Georgia. The invention of "slipways" in 1921 aided the southern expansion of the whaling industry. The patented design placed a large, ramp-like opening on the ship to make it easier to 'slip' dead whales onto the ship for processing. Between 1927 and 1931, whaling around Antarctica quadrupled.

The extreme exploitation of Antarctica's whale populations was neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. Between the first and second world wars, the price of raw materials around the world plummeted, including that of whale products. The economic downturn caused the whaling industry to collapse, and it became clear that international whaling needed to be regulated.

Whaling Laws and Regulations

The Gray (or Grey) Whale, Eschrichtius robustus. Open mouth showing baleen or whalebone and tongue. San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California Sur, Mexico. A young whale with its mouth open showing the baleen.
The 1935 treaty only applied to baleen whales. Gerald Corsi / Getty Images

The first attempt to regulate whaling at an international level occurred at the 1931 Geneva Convention for Regulation of Whaling. The resulting treaty aimed to better manage the whaling industry to help curb the ongoing overproduction of whale oil. The international treaty came into effect in 1935 and required all whaling vessels to be licensed. The treaty also only applied to baleen whales.

A second treaty, the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling, was signed in 1937. The new agreement expanded the protections of the 1931 treaty to the grey whale and all fin whales, established new minimum size requirements for blue and fin whales, and enacted size requirements for humpback and sperm whales for the first time. The agreement also enacted seasonal whaling restrictions and prohibited whaling across the entire Atlantic and Indian oceans north of a specific latitude in an effort to protect whale calving grounds.

However, the requirements put in place by the 1931 Convention and the 1937 Agreement were poorly enforced. To address these shortcomings, the Protocol to the London Agreement was adopted in 1938. The London Protocol amended the 1937 Agreement to establish a whale sanctuary near Antarctica and to prohibit the hunting of Antarctic humpback whales altogether. However, there remained no annual limits on the number of whales that could be hunted overall.

Establishment of the International Whaling Commission

In 1946, following the conclusion of World War II, 13 nations signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Part of the Convention's mandate included the establishment of a new international regulatory institution: the International Whaling Commission, or IWC. In response to requests from the United States, the Convention included protections for indigenous whaling and authorized the collection of whales for scientific purposes—an aspect of the Convention that would receive substantial criticism in the following decades. The Convention also required a 3/4 vote to pass any future regulations.

Despite these regulations and the establishment of the IWC, commercial whaling peaked during the 1961-1962 season, killing around 67,000 whales.

The 1985 Whaling Ban

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission introduced a complete ban, or moratorium, on all whaling for the 1985-1986 season to provide whale populations an opportunity to recover. Before the moratorium went into effect, five nations announced their intentions to defy its mandate: Japan, the Soviet Union, Chile, Norway, and Peru. Just Japan and Norway registered official objections to the moratorium and continued to commercially hunt whales, but substantial political pressure led both countries to ultimately agree to the IWC's moratorium.

Scientific Whaling

Despite the 1985 moratorium, whaling continued under the international agreement's provision allowing the killing of whales for scientific research. Between 1985 and 1988, Iceland, South Korea, Japan, and Norway all submitted proposals to the IWC requesting permission to collect whales for scientific purposes.

In June 1986, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Howard Baldrige placed sanctions on Norway for its hunting of minke whales in U.S. waters. In response, Norway agreed to stop commercial whaling at the end of the 1987 season but stated they would continue to hunt for scientific research. On August 4, 1986, President Reagan blocked the United States' own sanctions because he believed Norway's actions were in compliance with the IWC's regulations.

In 1988, when Japan announced its intention to continue whaling operations following despite IWC votes refusing to permit such whaling, President Reagan once again refused to enact sanctions. He did, however, immediately end all Japanese fishing allocations with the United States Exclusive Economic Zone.

The IWC Today

Greenpeace put out the message to the delegates fr
In 2002, Greenpeace put out a message to delegates from the International Whaling Commission in New Zealand. Michael Bradley / Getty Images

While originally a temporary ban, the 1985 moratorium on whaling continues today. Yet whaling continues in Norway, Iceland, and Japan.

After years of conflict with the majority of the IWC's membership over its scientific whaling practices, Japan officially left the IWC in 2018 to pursue commercial whaling without the guise of scientific research. However, Japan is currently restricting all of its whaling to its own Exclusive Economic Zone and is no longer venturing to Antarctica's Southern Ocean for additional whaling.

Iceland also continues to hunt whales today. Up until last year, Iceland primarily captured minke and fun whales. However, Iceland recently announced an end to its minke whale hunts. While Iceland continues to capture fin whales, the economic circumstances which halted the pursuit of minke whales are expected to force Iceland to halt whaling altogether in the coming years.

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