A brief history of whales and commercial whaling

Posted by Willie — 20 October 2016 at 3:58pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: Paul Hilton

Commercial whaling devastated the world’s biggest whale species, pushing some of them to the very brink of extinction in the early to mid 20th Century. Whaling for meat, oil, or whalebone was not a new idea, but new explosive harpoons and industrialised factory ships plundering the seas for whales had an even more catastrophic impact than what had come in centuries before.

It was the realisation that catches were declining that led to the creation, by whaling nations, of an organisation that would become the ‘International Whaling Commission’ (IWC).

When they first got together, they realised that the ways that different countries were recording what they catch, and even what they called whales, didn’t match up. Since the whales of value being hunted at the time were baleen whales and sperm whales, this group of whales became known as the ‘Great Whales’, and the group for which the IWC had responsibility, leaving a lot of other animals we know as ‘whales’ not covered by that definition.

The IWC was set up in 1946, making it 70 years old this year. By 1966 the countries involved had already agreed to stop killing blue whales because there were virtually none left. As the biggest of the whales, they had been relentlessly hunted out first.

Then, in the mid 1970s Greenpeace’s early whaling campaign shone a spotlight on the industry in a way that had never happened before. Showing the public images of whales being killed sparked a movement and a sea-change in popular opinion against whaling.

The IWC now had to change. Over a decade of committed campaigning the ‘Save the Whales’ movement triumphed when the IWC voted in 1982 for a moratorium (ban) commercial whaling.

That ban came into force in 1986 and is one of the defining conservation successes of the last hundred years – marking the virtual end of large scale whaling around the world. It was also a ground-breaking agreement between countries to control what happens on the ‘high seas’, the areas beyond national boundaries. 

Since 1986 we have learned a lot about humanity’s growing impact on the oceans, and we have carelessly unleashed a whole new range of threats at the world’s remaining whale populations. Our whales must contend with the impacts of climate change, habitat loss, overfishing, fisheries entanglement, noise disturbance, toxic pollution, and now the growing scourge of plastic filling our seas.

Yet ever since the moratorium was announced it has been under threat, and been undermined. Using objections, loopholes, and the pretence of ‘scientific’ whaling, a few nations have continued hunting whales commercially until the present day. Though it might not make any environmental or economic sense, there are those who simply want the ban lifted, and to legitimise once again whaling on the world’s high seas, our global commons.

Commodifying large, and slow growing animals has historically always led to them being overhunted - just look at the fate of rhinos and elephants. Today the world’s remaining whales need more protections, not less, and the IWC really needs to be able to focus on addressing threats to critically endangered species of whales, dolphins and porpoises rather than an endless debate on commercial whaling.

The political reality though is that the ban on whaling is under threat, and if it falls then it will likely do so not because the ‘pro whaling’ lobby won the argument, but more that the ‘pro whales’ governments didn’t put enough resources or political capital into whale conservation.

We can all help change that, by making sure our politicians know what we think.

Whales belong in the ocean, and are a vital part of making it work properly – storing carbon, recycling nutrients and mixing layers of ocean while they do. Our seas are poorer and weaker without whales, and the world would be too. So let’s not go backwards on whale conservation now.

In a world where our whales face so many other threats – the one thing we can, and should, stop immediately is commercial whaling. So let’s agree to stop talking about undoing the ban, and get on with all the other urgent conservation challenges instead.

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

Follow Greenpeace UK