Biodiversity and Conservation: A Hypertext Book by Peter J. Bryant

Overexploitation has been responsible for catastrophic depletion of resources in both the whaling and fishing industries.

One of the worst examples of wildlife exploitation in the history of the world is provided by the whaling industry. So far, no species of whale has gone extinct because of whaling, but many species have been reduced to "commercial extinction" (too rare to be worth hunting), and many local populations, or "stocks", have been eliminated.

There are two major types of whale:

The toothed whales, represented mainly by the sperm whale (related to killer whales, dolphins and porpoises) that lives in many of the world's oceans and feeds mainly on squid, including Giant Squid up to 57 feet long - a species that has never been seen alive! The sperm whale was hunted for its meat, that was rendered into oil that was a major fuel for lighting. Another product was spermaceti - a liquid wax substance found in the huge head that was used in the manufacture of smokeless candles and as a lubricant for machines.

The baleen whales, that feed on swarms of shrimp-like crustaceans called krill, by straining the sea water through long, fringed baleen plates that hang down from the roof of a cavernous mouth. Baleen provided a strong, flexible material (similar to plastic) which was used for corset stays, horse whips and other applications. These whales were hunted for their baleen as well as for their meat, which was either eaten or made into oil.

History of Whaling

Whaling started in the first few centuries A.D. by the Japanese, and between about 800 and 1000 A.D. by the Norwegians and by the Basque people living on the north coast of France and Spain. The Dutch, British and Americans started in the 17th century. All of this early whaling was done from small boats using hand-thrown harpoons. Most of the whalers hunted the slow and docile Northern Right Whale, so named because it was the "right whale" to hunt. The Europeans wanted the whales for their oil and for their baleen. The Japanese ate the meat, and found uses for many other parts of the whale. Only about 300 right whales survive in the North Atlantic and 250 in the North Pacific Ocean, and the species is showing no signs of recovery. In February 2002, the National Marine Fisheries Service refused to designate Critical Habitat for this species, claiming that not enough information was available. Many of the deaths of these animals occur by collisions with ships, and special methods are being tested to help avoid these accidents. The Southern Right Whale, a separate species, is doing better with about 7,500 individuals.

A species related to the Right Whale, the Bowhead Whale, was hunted to extinction in the Atlantic Ocean but still exists in the North Pacific. The stock is still small (7,500), but still hunted every year (quota of 67/year) by Alaskan Eskimos. However, at its 2002 meeting the IWC rejected the U.S. request to continue this hunt.

The American whalers also hunted the Sperm whale (made famous in Herman Melville's classic novel "Moby Dick"), first in the Atlantic from bases in New England, later in the Pacific from bases in Hawaii. Sperm whales feed on giant squid deep in the ocean, including species that have never been seen alive.

They also hunted the California Gray whale in the lagoons of Baja California, where they go to breed, and from 16 shore stations along the coast of California. The California Gray Whale is a specialized baleen whale: it sucks mud from the ocean bottom (in the Bering and Chukchi Seas north and west of Alaska) through one side of the mouth, and filters crustaceans called amphipods from the mud using short baleen plates. The California Gray whale was hunted almost to extinction in the late 1800's, then recovered, was hunted almost to extinction again by factory ships in the 1930's and 1940's, and recovered again. Today the species is up to pre-exploitation levels (about 26,000) and has been removed from the endangered species list.

Modern Whaling

Modern whaling began in 1868, when the harpoon gun and explosive harpoon (which explodes inside the whale) were invented. The harpoon guns were mounted on fast steam-driven vessels, making it possible to catch the faster-swimming rorquals (blue, fin, Sei, and Minke whales). The development of factory ships made it possible for the whalers to stay at sea for long periods, increasing the number of whales they could hunt.

International Whaling Commission

Whaling has been regulated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1946. The IWC gave its member nations quotas on the whales they wanted to hunt, based on negotiations and guesswork. The quotas were always too high, so the populations declined rapidly. After the biggest whales (blues) were hunted to the point that they were too hard to find, the whalers went on to the next largest species, the fin whale. Then they moved on to the Sei whale, then the Minke. Humpbacks were also taken. Chart shows take by species. Humpback, blue, fin, Sei whale were hunted down to a small percentage of their original populations.

The IWC is open to non-whaling nations as well as whaling nations. The non-whaling nations gradually added to their numbers on the Commission, eventually turning it from a whalers' club into a conservation-minded organization. As a result, in 1982 the IWC was able to adopt a resolution calling for an indefinite moratorium on commercial whaling, which became effective in 1986.

International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling

Controversy swells around whaling commission meeting - 6-29-2000 Resolutions of the 2000 Meeting of the International Whaling Commission

Recovery of some populations

The IWC moratorium meant the end of most commercial whaling. As a result, many species seem to be recovering, at least in some parts of their range. In addition to Gray whales, Blue and Humpback whales are being seen in increasing numbers off the coast of Southern California:

Population estimates, California coast to 300 miles
Species 1979 1991
Blue whale 500 2049
Humpback whale 88 607

Except for North Atlantic right whales and southern blue whales, most stocks seem to be increasing (Schmidt, 1994). Even bowhead whales, one of the most depleted species, seem to be on the increase (7500, up from 1500 in 1976). North Atlantic humpback whales were estimated at 11,000 animals in 2000, compared with 5,505 in the 1980s. An additional humpback whale breeding area was discovered off the coast of Africa in 1999. Humpback whales in Australian waters have recovered so well that the Australian government is removing them from the national endangered species list.

The North Atlantic right whale population appears to be in serious trouble; only two females with calves were spotted off the coast of Georgia and north Florida in 1999, compared to 17 calves born in 1997 and 6 in 1998. This has raised fears that the population may be disappearing.

Increased population sizes can be a mixed blessing for the whales. In 1993, the IWC Scientific Committee, noting that the Minke whale population was up to 900,000, concluded that it could now support commercial whaling. There was strong opposition from conservation-minded countries, and the IWC did not accept this recommendation, causing the Scientific Committee chairman to resign. Some of the whaling nations are now arguing that they need to use their whaling fleets to reduce ("cull") the Minke population in order to allow other species of whales and fish to recover.

Revised Management Procedure

In 1994 the IWC approved a Revised Management Procedure which will allow the reintroduction of commercial whaling as stocks increase to certain threshold levels (54% of pre-exploitation levels). A special meeting of the IWC was convened in 2001 to consider reintroduction of commercial whaling, but it ended in a stalemate.

Loopholes in the IWC Moratorium

There are also some loopholes in the IWC Moratorium. First, compliance with the moratorium is voluntary: any IWC member country can file a protest of the moratorium, and then need not abide by it: Norway is hunting Minke whales in the North Atlantic under such a protest. Second, there are exceptions for "aboriginal whaling"; the American Eskimos are still allowed to hunt the bowhead whale and the gray whale, and the Russians are allowed to take 100-200 gray whales to serve to their northern aboriginals. Third, whaling "for scientific research" is still allowed.

Japanese whaling

Japan has continued and expanded its whaling activities in spite of intense international pressure to abide by the moratorium. In July 2000 Japan expanded its "research program" to include permits for 50 Bryde's and ten sperm whales in the North Pacific, along with its usual quota of 100 minke whales. In 2001 the fleet almost filled its quota with 100 minke whales, 50 Bryde's whales, and eight sperm whales. The Antarctic "research program" involves a quota of 400 minke whales annually. Although the whaling is carried out by the Japanese "Institute for Cetacean Research", the meat is sold to wholesalers and used for school lunches. The US has repeatedly threatened trade sanctions against Japan and other whaling nations, but has never carried out the threats, mainly because they violate the principles of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Molecular biologists have recently been taking samples of whale meat sold in Japan as kujira or sashimi (Baker and Palumbi, 1994). The only type of whale meat that could have been obtained legally since the moratorium was Minke whale, but using DNA tests the biologists have found samples containing blue whale, humpback whale, fin whale, and dolphin material as well as Minke whale. The assumption being made in plans to reintroduce commercial whaling is that only abundant species will be exploited and that rare species will be protected. But these new results show that legal whaling could easily serve as a cover for marketing the meat from illegally captured endangered species. A proposal has been made by Norway to establish a control system to detect illegal whale products. DNA samples would be taken from each animal, a set of sequence characteristics determined and entered into a public database. Samples from whale meat found in the marketplace could be analyzed and this would provide information about its origin. Not only species and stock, but even the individual whale can be identified this way.

The samples collected in Japan were also analyzed for contamination, and over half of them contained levels of mercury, PCBs, and DDT that made them unfit for human consumption. Since whales are at the top of the food chain, live long lives and have extensive fat stores, they show a high level of bioaccumulation of stable organic materials like pesticides.

Another major problem in protecting whale species has been illegal whaling, which can often go undetected for many years. It was recently reported that the Soviet whaling fleet, operating from 1948 to 1973 in the southern hemisphere, reported taking 2,710 humpback whales but actually took over 48,000. In some cases they built ships with false bottoms so they could carry a lot more cargo than the inspectors could see. This illegal hunting makes management plans ineffective and is probably responsible for the failure of many humpback whale stocks and of the entire blue whale population in the southern hemisphere to recover.

Norway's Minke Whale Hunt

Norway is continuing commercial whaling in defiance of the moratorium, taking about 600 Minke whales per year out of the North-East Atlantic population that has been estimated by the Scientific Committee of the IWC (May 1996) at 112,000. There are an estimated 750,000 Minkes in the Antarctic, so the species as a whole is in good shape; but the North Atlantic population is genetically distinct from the Antarctic one (by DNA tests).

When Norway announced its decision to resume commercial whaling at the 1992 IWC meeting, 17 nations signed a statement condemning it. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has deliberately sunk two of the Norwegian ships that were participating in the Minke hunt. The IWC has repeatedly called on Norway to halt its whaling activities, but Norway continues to set itself a quota (549 animals for the year 2001). In the 1997 season Norwegian whalers in 31 vessels killed 503 Minke whales of their 580-whale quota. This produced an estimated 730 tons of meat valued at about $2.9 million. Norway hunts Minke whales only for their meat, but in Jan. 2000 they announced that they will start exporting other whale products (mainly blubber) to Japan.

In 1999, Iceland also made plans to resume commercial whaling.

The Minke whale issue illustrates a fundamental difference in approaches to conservation: Japan, Norway and Iceland want to resume commercial whaling under the rules of the Revised Management Scheme, which was established to allow scientific information on population sizes to guide the assignment of whaling quotas. But the IWC has repeatedly refused to approve resumption of commercial whaling, even under the Revised Management Scheme. This is because the delegations from several powerful non-whaling nations, following public opinion in their own countries, are opposed to commercial whaling even if it does not threaten the targeted species.

U. S. Statutes Supporting IWC Decisions.

The IWC has no enforcement powers, but individual nations can take action. According to the Packwood/Magnuson and Pelly Amendments to the Fishermen's Protective Act, the U.S. Government must invoke sanctions against any nation that undermines the authority of the IWC. These sanctions could be effective, since they would prevent Norway from fishing in U.S. territorial waters and from selling fish products in this country (worth $200 million per year). President Clinton has refused to implement the law against Norway, possibly because Norway could easily retaliate by refusing exploration licenses to U.S. oil companies.

The Antarctic Sanctuary

In 1994 the IWC was successful in setting aside a huge area around Antarctica as a Southern Ocean Sanctuary, which should protect the major feeding areas of about 90% of the world's whales. The proposal passed by a vote of 23-1. Japan cast the single opposing vote, and has continued to hunt about 400 Minke whales/year in the Sanctuary for its "research" whaling program. This is allowed because under IWC rules, a sanctuary can remain open to whaling by any nation that lodges an objection.

South Pacific Nations have repeatedly proposed that an additional South Pacific Whale Sanctuary be established to extend the Southern Ocean Sanctuary to include the warmer ocean where many of the great whales breed. Unfortunately, the proposal failed to reach the required three-quarters majority due to votes cast against it by nations that were promised development aid by Japan. But individual island nations can take action to protect large expanses of ocean. For example, in 2001 The Cook Islands Government established a whale sanctuary throughout its Exclusive Economic Zone, providing protection for two million sq. km. of the central South Pacific Ocean.

Small Cetaceans

One of the most important issues at recent meetings of the IWC has been an attempt, by the U.S. and other nations, to have the IWC regulate the catch of small cetaceans - mainly dolphins and porpoises. This is an urgent issue now as Japan has been killing so many dolphins for meat that some species are threatened. In 1988, 39,000 Dall's porpoise were taken by Japan, and in 1989 31,475 were taken -out of a total stock of 105,000! The meat is being used as a supplement to whale meat. 12,396 Dall's porpoise were killed by the Japanese in 1995 and 18,000 in 1998. In 1999, Japan agreed to buy 200 tons of meat and blubber from Russian beluga whales (white whales), potentially launching the first-ever international commercial hunt of beluga whales.

Cruelty in Whaling

The whaling industry concerns itself only with whales as populations and as exploitable resources. Many conservation organizations oppose whaling because they don't want to see any more whale stocks driven to extinction. In addition, many anti-cruelty organizations and individuals oppose all kinds of whaling (commercial, subsistence, and scientific) because of the cruel methods used to kill whales (either explosive harpoons or "cold" harpoons).

Whaling for Subsistence

Many whale-protection statutes allow exemptions for small-scale whaling carried on by traditional methods for subsistence purposes. The IWC is allowing the following:

Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock of bowhead whales

(taken by Alaskan Eskimos and native peoples of Chukotka):

"The total number of landed whales for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 shall not exceed 280 whales, with no more than 67 whales struck in any year (up to 15 unused strikes may be carried over each year)." The request to renew this quota was rejected by the IWC in 2002.

Eastern North Pacific gray whales

(taken by those whose "traditional, aboriginal and subsistence needs have been recognized"):

"A total catch of 620 whales is allowed for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 with a maximum of 140 in any one year."

West Greenland fin whales

(taken by Greenlanders):

"An annual catch of 19 whales is allowed for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002."

West Greenland minke whales

(taken by Greenlanders):

"The annual number of whales struck for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002, shall not exceed 175 (up to 15 unused strikes may be carried over each year). "

East Greenland minke whales

(taken by Greenlanders):

"An annual catch of 12 whales is allowed for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 (up to 3 unused strikes may be carried over each year)."

Humpback whales

(taken by St Vincent and The Grenadines):

"for the seasons 1996/97 to 1998/99, the annual catch shall not exceed two whales."

However, it is sometimes difficult to be sure that the activity fits the definition; for example, Siberian whalers are allowed to hunt gray whales, but much of the whale meat is used to feed foxes that are bred for their furs in a commercial operation.

At the 1997 IWC meeting, the U.S. government presented a request by the Makah Indian Tribe, who live on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, to start hunting gray whales "for cultural uses and subsistence needs". This would be the first Makah whaling activity in 70 years. There was tremendous resistance to this proposal, since the IWC usually allows subsistence quotas only for groups whose traditional aboriginal subsistence and cultural needs have been recognized, and this is not the case with the Makah. The U.S. ultimately won approval for the tribe to take up to five whales per year for five years, by incorporating the request into a joint U.S.-Russian proposal to allow aboriginal peoples to take 620 gray whales in the next five years in the North Pacific. The Russian part is on behalf of the Chukotka people in the far north-east of Siberia, whose subsistence and cultural needs have been recognized. Some of the elders of the Makah tribe have joined a large group of conservationists in speaking out against the hunt. So far, the tribe has taken only one whale, in 1999. They have been criticized for taking a Gray whale so late in the year, because this animal must have been part of the small (35-200 animals) resident herd rather than the much larger (~26,000 animal) migratory herd which would be further south at that time.

On June 9, 2000, a federal appeals court overturned the ruling that allowed the Makah Indians to resume whaling, ruling 2-1 that the environmental impact had not been adequately considered. A new draft environmental assessment was made available by NMFS for public comment in July 2001, and ultimately the report reached the conclusion that the hunt can resume with more liberal rules regarding when and where the whales can be hunted. The tribe is allowed to kill five whales a year through the end of 2002, according to the IWC quota.

In 2001 NMFS released a notification of an impending Environmental Assessment in which they will propose quotas for 2003-2007. The legality of their designation of the Makah plan as a subsistence hunt is again being questioned.

A coalition of conservation groups in 2001 petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to relist the gray whale as an endangered or threatened species, based on threats both to the species and its environment (it was taken off the endangered species list in 1994 because it's population had recovered so well). The threats include: a decline in benthic amphipods - the gray whale's primary food supply - due to climatic changes, direct damage by bottom trawling and contamination; lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms to protect the whale and it habitat; and aboriginal whaling.

The High North Alliance was organized to "defend the right of coastal communities to utilize marine mammals sustainably". Their web site presents some lively debate on many aspects of the whaling question. You can add your comments to their site.

International Whaling Commission, 2002 meeting

High North Alliance @ the 54th annual IWC meeting 2002

The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission

The Arctic nations are especially affected by the IWC moratorium, because their economies are largely dependent on harvesting of marine resources. Partly because the IWC remains opposed to commercial whaling, in 1992 the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission was established by Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. It emphasizes management - a euphemism for hunting - of marine mammal populations in the region (this was the original purpose of IWC!). It differs from the IWC in covering all marine mammals in the region (whales, dolphins, seals and walruses), and in trying to understand the role of marine mammals in the entire ecosystem.

Recommended book: Greenlanders, Whales, and Whaling: Sustainability and Self-Determination in the Arctic by Richard A. Caulfield. 1997, Dartmouth College; 224 pages.

Laws Protecting Marine Mammals

Whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions receive protection in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. In passing this legislation, Congress found that (quote):

certain species and population stocks of marine mammals are, or may be, in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of man's activities;

such species and population stocks should not be permitted to diminish beyond the point at which they cease to be a significant functioning element in the ecosystem of which they are a part, and, consistent with this major objective, they should not be permitted to diminish below their optimum sustainable population level;

measures should be taken immediately to replenish any species or population stock which has diminished below its optimum sustainable level;

there is inadequate knowledge of the ecology and population dynamics of such marine mammals and of the factors which bear upon their ability to reproduce themselves successfully; and

marine mammals have proven themselves to be resources of great international significance, aesthetic and recreational as well as economic.

The MMPA established a moratorium, with certain exceptions, on the taking of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, and on the importing of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the United States.

MMPA Reauthorization 1999

The eleven species of marine mammals that occur in U.S. waters, including most of the great whales, also receive protection because they are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.


What do YOU think? Start or join a discussion with the rest of the class using the noteboard at:

Copyright 2000 Peter J. Bryant (, School of Biological Sciences, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697, USA. Phone 001 (949) 824-4714 Fax 001 (949) 824-3571
William Darby Brind Whaling