Whaling around the world

Updated: january 2014

Whaling leaves few people indifferent. From environmentalists who go as far as to risk their lives to demonstrate their opposition, to aboriginal peoples who see a means of reviving their heritage, to nations where consuming whale meat is completely natural, there is a whole host of cultural, social, economic and political arguments. What is the debate really all about?

Commercial whaling

© Jean Lemire

  • North Atlantic right whale, formerly sought by Basque whalers
  • Photo credit: © Jean Lemire

Commercial whaling was probably first practised in the 9th century in the North Sea and in the 12th century in the Bay of Biscay. As the right whale populations in Europe were in decline, whalers headed to North America in the 16th century. Over time, a genuine industry took shape along the North American coasts, with thousands of right whales, rorquals, sperm whales, gray whales and several other species being harvested every year. Whaling intensity increased with the advent of explosive harpoons and powerful boats. Between 1904 and 1985, over 2 million whales were harvested in Antarctic waters alone. This hunting drove several species to the brink of extinction. In 1946, in the wake of obvious overhunting of whale populations, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created. Its mandate is to oversee the conservation of populations in order to ensure the sustainable development of the whaling industry. In 1982, a moratorium on whaling was declared by IWC member countries. Although this moratorium was initially scheduled to last from 1986 to 1990, it has yet to be lifted. But according to the 1946 convention, any member can oppose a resolution like the one that led to the moratorium and thus issue commercial quotas; this is what Norway did in 1982. Before resuming commercial whaling per se, the country undertook a scientific whaling program. Then, in 1993, commercial whaling was resumed, with annual targets of between 500 and 800 minke whales in Norwegian territorial waters. The meat is sold on the local market.

Norway has been attempting since 2002 to resume exports of whale products (particularly blubber, which is not consumed by Norwegians) despite the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). But their products are rejected by Japan (the chief potential importer) due to their levels of contaminants, particularly PCBs. In February 2012, Norway reinstated the whale harvest quotas, authorizing its whalers to harpoon nearly 1000 minke whales, i.e. about 45% more than the quota awarded in 2009, despite the their persistent difficulties in reaching the allowable number of takes.

  • Fin whales, a species hunted by Iceland
  • Photo credit: © GREMM

Iceland ,which had withdrawn from the IWC in 1991, rejoined the Commission in 2002 and announced that it would resume commercial harvesting of minke and fin whales in 2006. The capture of some 100 fin whales, a threatened species whose meat is exported mainly to Japan, sparked a wave of protests in nearly a dozen countries. In 2011-2012, no fin whales were harvested due to the collapse of its sole market, Japan, which had been hit by a tsunami and a nuclear disaster. According to the Icelandic government, the whaling practised by the country is entirely legal, compliant with international obligations, and based on rigorous scientific data.

While the harvesting of great cetaceans has fallen over the past twenty years, the consumption of small cetaceans has been on the rise since the 1970s. Most of these species are not as rigorously monitored as great cetaceans and don’t benefit from as much attention or information for their conservation. In some countries, these takes, whether from dedicated hunting or bycatch, compensate for a lack of food or protein resources. They even generate economic benefits in certain countries from market sales. The rising number of harvests may become extremely worrying for species that are already at risk. The IWC has emphasized the importance of protecting such species and has even created a fund for this purpose.

Some member countries of the IWC have long abandoned whaling and fiercely oppose any resumption of commercial whaling. The main arguments of these countries are practical in nature: several whale populations, rendered vulnerable by hunting in the past, are simply unable to sustain commercial harvesting. In their view, it would be impossible to regulate and monitor these harvests and the ensuing trade. This position is shared by a number of environmental groups. Some object to whaling on moral grounds as well: whales are “special” creatures and hunting is cruel. Equally problematic are the various threats faced by whales such as pollution, climate change and fisheries. Can we adequately predict their effects on whale populations and manage harvests accordingly?

Pro-whaling countries consider that the IWC, in accepting countries that oppose whaling on moral or ethical grounds, is straying from its original mandate, i.e. the sound management of whaling practices. They consider that whales can be hunted in the same way as any other wild animal. They have strong cultural, social, economic and political attachments to whaling. The whale harvesting (commercial and subsistence) practised today mainly provides food for human consumption. According to pro-whaling countries and groups, harvesting is well regulated and is carried out using methods that minimize animal suffering.

At the IWC’s 2010 Annual Meeting, negotiations were held to possibly lift the moratorium and limit commercial whaling quotas. On the third day of the meeting, negotiations were suspended. The countries at odds mutually accuse one another for the deadlock in discussions. The years to come will be crucial for the future of whaling.

Scientific whaling

Intensive whaling has provided us with invaluable information on cetaceans. But it has also driven several species to the brink of extinction. Japan continues to harvest whales in the name of science. Indeed, the 1946 convention of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) stipulates that each member country may issue scientific whaling permits. Can this approach still be justified today? Does scientific whaling really serve science or is it just a smokescreen for commercial interests?

At the present time, Japan is the only country to have undertaken scientific whaling programs as soon as the moratorium came into force in 1986. The oldest of such programs is JARPA, conducted in Antarctica, where more than 400 minke whales were harvested annually between 1987 and 2004. Amongst other objectives, this program aimed to estimate certain biological parameters of this species (for example its natural mortality rate) and to study its role in the Antarctic ecosystem. The successor to this program, JARPA II, undertaken in 2005, calls for the harvest of nearly 900 minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpback whales. Under JARPN, a second program launched in 1994, around 100 or so minke whales are taken annually in the North Pacific. This program aims to better understand the feeding ecology of minke whales. In 2000, the Japanese added the Bryde’s whale (50) and the sperm whale (10) to the program, and in 2002, the sei whale (100). Proponents of these harvests maintain that they have enhanced knowledge and provided useful information for managing stocks of minke whales and other targeted species. The products of harvested whales are sold on the local market, as stipulated in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. However, these products don’t market well and often the meat is sold at low prices or distributed at no cost in establishments such as school cafeterias and retirement homes. Moreover, recent genetic analysis seems to have proven the existence of an illegal whale meat trade between Japan and certain countries that are parties to CITES without restriction, including the United States and South Korea. Some researchers propose an independent, transparent and reliable monitoring system to enforce international treaties pertaining to the wildlife trade.


  • Minke whale, harvested by Japan for scientific purposes
  • Photo credit: © GREMM

In July 2012, after a 25-year hiatus, South Korea announced its intention to resume whaling for scientific purposes. Strongly condemned by anti-whaling countries and the public from around the world, the South Korean government ultimately scrapped plans for this hunt and opted instead to study cetaceans without killing them. The scientific whaling programs pursued by Japan are also strongly criticized. For several years now, during their Annual Meeting, IWC members adopt (often by a narrow majority) a resolution to encourage Japan to abandon its whaling activities. In 2002, Phil Clapham and his colleagues, all members of the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) Scientific Committee, published an article in the journal BioScience. They emphasize that Japan’s program does not include hypotheses to be tested or other performance indicators, that the data collected are not necessary for managing whale populations and that such data do not undergo an independent review process, that more useful information could be gathered without killing the animals, and that the program sacrifices more whales than what the IWC would advocate for quotas in the absence of a moratorium. They also argue that scientific hunting is merely a pretext for maintaining a demand for whale products and encouraging the resumption of commercial whaling.

If scientific whaling continues, should the IWC require that this activity be subject to rigorous scientific evaluation criteria? And, if indeed it is only a cover-up for commercial activities, should the IWC lift the moratorium and “officially” regulate these harvests? A resolution to this thorny debate should be reached in the course of the IWC’s forthcoming meetings.

Subsistence whaling

In addition to commercial and scientific whaling, some countries practise what is known as “subsistence” whaling. According to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), subsistence hunting is practised by aboriginal peoples who share strong community, family, social and cultural ties to a traditional dependency on the harvesting of whales and the products derived therefrom. Also, the purpose of the hunt must be for consumption by aboriginal peoples only, and shall aim to satisfy the latter’s nutritional and cultural needs.

This definition is not universally accepted, however. Many question the subjective definition of “aboriginal”, amongst other things. If the definition is “inhabiting or existing in a land from the earliest times…” (Oxford), then wouldn’t the Norwegians, Icelanders and Faroese be considered aboriginal and couldn’t they also practise subsistence whaling? The definition of the term “subsistence” is also questioned. If the term means “to meet the essential needs” of an indigenous community, how is it that the products of subsistence whaling in Greenland (approved by the IWC) can be found on the local market? What is the difference between this hunt and the one practised by Norway, for example? And doesn’t trade allow to satisfy essential needs? Also, does preventing aboriginals from selling the products of their resources not limit their avenues for developing their economies? These are just a few of the arguments put forward by those who question the concept of subsistence whaling.


  • Humpback whale, still hunted traditionally by some peoples
  • Photo credit: © GREMM

Whatever the case, a number of countries practise subsistence hunting with permits and quotas granted by the IWC. Greenland (Denmark) has an annual quota of 9 fin whales, 2 bowhead whales, 10 humpback whales and approximately 200 minke whales, not counting takes of smaller cetaceans: narwhals, belugas, pilot whales and harbour porpoises. Native peoples of Chukotka (Russian Federation) share with the Eskimos of Alaska (United States) a quota of 336 bowhead whales and 744 gray whales for the 2013-2018 period. They also hunt belugas and narwhals. In addition to the subsistence whaling catch limits that they share with Chukotka Natives, the Eskimos harvest just over 200 belugas a year. The Makah, an indigenous people of Washington State (United States) obtained an annual quota for subsistence harvesting of gray whales in 1999. But an appeal by environmental groups was upheld by the federal courts, preventing the Makah from taking advantage of this permit. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is still reviewing the matter. The Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines harvest several dozen short-finned pilot whales and a number of dolphins. Additionally, they have a harvest quota of 24 humpback whales.

Other IWC non-members practise whaling according to their own rules. Canada, which withdrew from the IWC in 1982, regulates the hunting of hundreds of belugas and narwhals by the Inuit for subsistence. Further, about one bowhead whale is harvested every two years (except in Baffin Bay where one take is permitted every 13 years). In the Faroe Islands, 1,000 pilot whales and a few dozen dolphins are hunted annually on average. Indonesia and the Philippines also harvest whales, but statistics for these countries are not readily available. They are believed to hunt sperm whales, Bryde’s whales, killer whales and other small cetaceans.