What Is Whaling & How Can We Help Them Recover?

A whaling vessel cruising the open seas with a whale right underneath.

Whaling numbers have been in rapid decline worldwide since the 1960’s.

And yet, populations of whales aren’t rebounding like they should be – and they aren’t expected to for decades to come, if ever.

Whales have the power to change our climate, promote biodiversity, and even teach us about ourselves; making their shrinking numbers a top priority for conservationists.

Bans on whaling are only a small part of the changes we need to see if we want to help these majestic creatures repopulate our oceans.

So, how does modern whaling actually work?

What is commercial whaling?

Commercial whaling refers to the organized, systematic hunting of certain species of whale – the majority of which took place in the 20th century. Whales are cetaceans, a type of aquatic mammal that includes other familiar animals like dolphins and porpoises as well.

Historically, commercial whaling was an industry similar to the fishing industry today, with fleets of highly informed, efficient whale hunters aware of how their prey behaved and where they may be found. Killed mainly for their blubber and oil – whales were at one point an essential component for many industries.

A vintage advertisement for Soapine, a soap product made from whale oil.
An advertisement for Soapine, a whale oil based dish soap from the 19th century.

Open-boat whaling with harpoons and ropes peaked around the 1840’s, eventually morphing into more modern methods. Armed with explosive harpoons and diesel engines, modern whaling fleets massacred entire species of whales over the course of a few decades.

Because the demise of whale populations was a direct result of industrial hunting, we have very good records of precisely how many were taken. Overall, it’s thought that the number of whales dropped by around 2.9 million individuals (PDF) between 1900-1999.

Surprisingly, the international whaling industry hit its peak as recently as the 1960’s – when around 80,000 whales were slaughtered each year.

A graph showing the number of whales killed per decade since 1900.

Here’s a more detailed list of the species killed from that report, published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2014:

  • Blue whales: 379,185
  • Fin whales: 874,068
  • Sperm whales: 761,523
  • Humpback whales: 249,433
  • Sei whales: 291,540
  • Bryde’s whales: 21,962
  • Minke whales: 283,905
  • Right whales: 5,560
  • Gray whales: 3,350
  • Other: 23,568

By 1986 the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which today includes 88 member countries, placed a global moratorium on whale hunting. The intention of this ban on whaling was to end the pointless slaughter of millions of sentient mammals, although not every nation agrees with it.

What countries still hunt whales?

Bloody scenes of whales being harpooned by men in wooden ships may be a thing of the past, but commercial whaling does still exist today. Many nations which slaughtered whales in the past no longer have a whaling industry – but countries Japan, Norway, and Iceland are examples of those still poaching whales in the name of “scientific research”.

A vintage illustration of a Bowhead whale being harpooned from an open-boat.

There are two specific lists you can check out to see the exact data reported by countries that hunt whales to this day:

If you look through these lists, you’ll quickly realize that most whale harvesting is done under objection from the scientific community; meaning, the modern day whaling industry – at least in more industrialized nations – mainly takes place in the name of barbaric tradition, not necessity.

Whaling in Japan

Japan has a history filled with whaling expeditions, and is one of the few countries still hanging on to the outdated practice in the name of tradition – as well as dubious “scientific whaling” objectives.

Canned whale meat lining the shelves of a Japanese market.
Image by halfrain via Flickr

When the 1986 moratorium on whaling was enacted, Moriyoshi Sato, the Japanese Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries was quoted as saying:

“The government will do its utmost to find out ways to maintain the nation’s whaling in the form of research or other forms”

In stark contrast to more up-to-date sustainability quotes, this kind of thinking highlights the attitude of a large portion of Japanese society at the time. In response to the whaling ban, Japan ultimately founded its Institute of Cetacean Research that runs whale research programs like the Japanese Whale Research Program Under Special Permit in the Antarctic (JARPA).

These programs have been maintained and changed over time, with stated goals based on studying things like:

  • The feeding ecology of cetaceans
  • The current state of whale stocks
  • The effects of climate change on whale populations

Japanese whale hunts are still common to this day under the guise of supposed research, a form of environmental greenwashing that literally outlines the number of whales they intend to slaughter – although, thankfully they regularly fail to hit these numbers due to anti-whaling activists.

One of the stranger stories to come out of the dying throes of this industry is one Japanese whaling company deciding to sell whale meat products out of vending machines in an attempt to revive interest in the niche.

Whaling in Norway

Norway tops the charts of whales slain some years, surpassing even Japan. However, whaling in Norway is celebrated as a cultural tradition by many – nobody is pretending that killing whales is an essential part of ecological research.

A massive pile of Beluga whale bones on the coast of Norway.
Image by David Stanley via Flickr

Interestingly, a 2021 survey showed that no one under the age of 35 was consuming whale meat in Norway – in fact, only 2% of the country is actually thought to eat any at all despite the high numbers of whales being killed there.

That isn’t to say that Norwegians were never whalers; there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that extensive whaling took place as far back as the Viking Age. The problem, really, is that lobbyists for the whaling industry continue to use these kinds of historical facts to justify modern hunts.

Whaling in Iceland

As of August in 2023, Iceland has decided to allow whaling again – two months after a government-appointed committee found the practice violated the nation’s Animal Welfare Act.

Whales bones left carelessly strewn about a paved parking lot in Iceland.
Image by Thomas Quine via Flickr

The practice does seem to be dying out in Iceland; only one permit remains in use by the whaling company Hvalur, set to expire in 2023. Iceland is a unique case: as a nation with a highly-profitable whale watching industry, it begs the question of why their officials support the slaughter of even a single whale?

Regenerative ecotourism is a concept that could even be applied to Japan and Norway, too; in which whale ecosystems are maintained and grown instead of destroyed – eventually turning into profitable and sustainable whale watching hotspots.

Whaling in other regions

Aside from places like Japan and Norway, there are whaling exceptions made for cultural reasons. For example, 90% of those living in Greenland are of Inuit descent; a group of culturally similar people who have traditionally relied on hunting whales and other large marine mammals to survive; with a climate that currently makes large-scale monoculture farming impossible.

But these are small numbers, with most hunted species only being captured and killed around ten times per year – a miniscule fraction of the numbers harvested throughout the history of whaling.

Is whaling illegal?

As you can see from the examples above, whaling isn’t illegal everywhere – but it is illegal in most countries.

The global moratorium on whaling is a set of rules agreed upon by participating nations – rules that are ignored by those who want to continue selling various products from whaling or maintain barbaric traditions.

Why is whaling bad for the environment?

The sheer number of whales killed during the 1900’s paints an interesting picture for our world; a planet with 70% of its surface covered in water. In other words, oceans cover a majority of Earth, but they’re missing upwards of 3 million of their largest inhabitants – whales.

Whales play a key role in the oceanic carbon cycle. As the largest animals to have ever lived on the planet, it seems impossible to imagine that removing them could have anything but negative effects on our global climate and ecology.

A group of humpback whales using a bubble net to catch fish.

Because of their size, whales require vast amounts of energy to exist; their exact diet depends on the species, ranging widely between things like:

  • Krill and shrimp
  • Crustaceans and mollusks
  • Fish and sharks
  • Other marine mammals

At the bottom of the oceanic food web, we find phytoplankton: microscopic creatures like algae and bacteria which undergo photosynthesis. Not only do these lifeforms feed many others like krill, they also provide the planet with around 80% of its oxygen.

phytoplankton: plankton communities which undergo photosynthesis

Whales, on the other hand, fall on the other side of the food chain. Sitting at the top of the food web allows whales to fulfill a unique role in oceanic ecosystems, rightfully earning them the title of marine ecosystem engineers.

When a whale dies, its carbon-rich body falls to the ocean floor; bringing large amounts of carbon to the ocean floor instead of releasing it into our atmosphere. This is a form of carbon sequestration; similar to developing technologies attempting to directly extract and store carbon from the air.

That isn’t to say whales can replace other, more effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but an ocean filled with 3 millions more whales or so would sequester much more carbon.

Whale populations impact marine nutrient cycles. Whales live a long time, with some species like Bowhead whales living up to 200 years – giving them an extremely long time to swim about, find their lunch, and eventually have it come out the other end.

Sea lions gathering around a breaching Humpback whale.
Image by Bob Tilden via Flickr

Not only are the fallen bodies of dead whales rich in nutrients, their poop is also a rich fertilizer capable of influencing even the lives of us on land. For example, a Sperm whale will dive to great depths in order to catch its preferred meal: giant squid.

Once full, these whales will then rise to the surface, releasing large fecal plumes along the way. All of this waste is eaten up by phytoplankton, which are then consumed by fish – ending up on our plates or in the belly of a bear. Eventually, all of these nutrients make their way back to the sea.

More whales means more fish. Because of how intertwined these food webs are, removing too many whales has led to a decline in species of krill and a general loss of oceanic biodiversity. Due to overzealous fishing fleets, which we’ll look at next, fisheries all across the world are starting to come up with empty nets.

A massive tuna leaps out of the Atlantic Ocean.
Image by Andrew P. via Flickr

As ecosystem engineers, our oceans need whales in order to thrive. Their ability to slot into a complex nutrient cycle is unparalleled, and the survival of many aquatic species may depend on our ability to help them reach their pre-whaling numbers again.

Are whaling laws doing enough?

Since the IWC issued its international ban on whaling, the populations of some species have seen a dramatic increase. Australia’s humpbacks, for example, have almost completely recovered after nearly going extinct in the early 1960’s.

Despite that, most species aren’t as fortunate:

However, most of us have never eaten whale or used its oil in candles or shoe polish – but you most likely do eat seafood. The whaling industry itself isn’t actually responsible for that many deaths per year, with countries like Norway only killing a few thousand per year on average.

The fishing industry is responsible for the bulk of all cetaceans killed, including whales. Hundreds of thousands of whales and other mammals are caught as bycatch annually – in other words, unintentionally. Overfishing has led to the development of extreme fish-catching methods including dragging wide plastic nets over many miles, trapping a high number of unsuspecting whales.

A sea turtle being rescued from a discarded plastic fishing ghost net.

Smaller whales are often killed during entanglement or shortly after; however, larger whales can sometimes take as long as six months to a year to die, slowly withering away and from malnourishment. Strong enough to break away from fishing nets, the number of larger whales killed by fishing gear is most likely even higher than recorded due to many whales dying far away from human eyes.

Being mammals, whales can easily drown when entangled. Aside from fishing fleets, our oceans are now home to large oceanic garbage patches that whales can struggle to navigate through – mostly plastic debris and lost fishing gear.

A beached Sei whale being dragged onshore for examination.

As fish stocks plummet, even more vessels are showing up to hunt down the remaining populations, causing friction between whales also seeking them out. Vessel strikes are considered one of the top threats to large whales; with an estimated 3.7 million fishing vessels patrolling the seas it’s easy to imagine how whales may be struck while hunting for their own meals.

The other aspect of all this to consider is that whale entanglements cost the fishing industry money. Entangled whales destroy equipment as they pass through fisheries – and changes in our climate are driving whales into less predictable migration patterns.

How do we stop whaling?

Whaling is a high-profile example of human destruction and brutality on full display, an issue that rightfully ignites an emotional reaction for most animal lovers. Obviously whaling is bad – but it’s not just because of the slaughter.

We know that these animals are intelligent, social, communicative, and (in most cases) gentle giants who deserve better than the torture humanity has inflicted on them. Capable of developing complex animal cultures, whales may appear alien – but these animals share a striking number of similarities with us.

A humpback whale and her calf peacefully swimming in the ocean.

Whales spend decades looking after their young, live in tightly-knit social groups, play together, form alliances, and even speak to one another. These are things worth protecting. So what are the best ways for you to help stop whaling?

Without an out-of-control global fishing industry, whale bycatch wouldn’t be such a big issue – this simple fact really does make it seem easy to reduce the amount of whales killed each year.

Deciding to go vegan or at least not eating seafood has never been easier. Seafood isn’t the only issue either, as eating meat is bad for the environment in a variety of other ways as well; the treatment of mammals on land is arguably even worse than their sea-faring relatives.

With too many fleets for our oceans to handle, not supporting industrial fishing is the most direct way for you to support whale conservation, alongside getting involved with environmental organizations taking direct action against whaling.

Final thoughts

Whaling ships and harpoons aren’t a common sight for many, but some countries are still pillaging the seas for the sake of tradition.

Seafood enjoyers in the developed world are also at fault; with gluttony for sushi and fried fish leading to the extinction of some of our most important tools in the fight against climate change.

Do you think whaling still has a place in our global society?

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