Whaling is the hunting of whales for their usable products like meat, oil and blubber. Its earliest forms date to at least circa 3000 BC.[1] Coastal communities around the world have long histories of subsistence whaling and harvesting beached whales. Industrial whaling emerged with organized fleets in the 17th century; competitive national whaling industries in the 18th and 19th centuries; and the introduction of factory ships along with the concept of whale harvesting in the first half of the 20th century. By the late 1930s more than 50,000 whales were killed annually[2] In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling because of the extreme depletion of most of the whale stocks.[3]

Contemporary whaling is subject to intense debate. Countries that support commercial whaling, notably Iceland, Japan, and Norway, wish to lift the ban on certain whale stocks for hunting.[4] Anti-whaling countries and environmental groups oppose lifting the ban. Under the terms of the IWC moratorium, aboriginal whaling is allowed to continue on a subsistence basis.[5] Over the past few decades, whale watching has become a significant industry in many parts of the world; in some countries it has replaced whaling, but in a few others, the two business models exist in an uneasy tension.


Whaling began in prehistoric times in coastal waters. The earliest depictions of whaling are the Neolithic Bangudae Petroglyphs in Korea, which may date back to 6000 BC.[6] These images are the earliest evidence for whaling.[7] Although prehistoric hunting and gathering is generally considered to have had little ecological impact, early whaling in the Arctic may have altered freshwater ecology.[8]

Early whaling affected the development of widely disparate cultures  such as Norway and Japan,[9] both of which continue to hunt in the 21st century. The Basques were the first to catch whales commercially, and dominated the trade for five centuries, spreading to the far corners of the North Atlantic and even reaching the South Atlantic. The development of modern whaling techniques was spurred in the 19th century by the increase in demand for whale oil,[10] sometimes known as "train oil", and in the 20th century by a demand for margarine and later whale meat.

Many countries which once had significant industries, such as the Netherlands, Scotland, and Argentina, ceased whaling long ago, and so are not covered in this article.


The primary species hunted are narwhals,[11] belugas, common minke whales and Antarctic minke whales,[12] which are some of the smallest species of whales. Recent scientific surveys estimate a population of 103,000 minkes in the northeast Atlantic. With respect to the populations of Antarctic minke whales, as of January 2010, the IWC states that it is "unable to provide reliable estimates at the present time" and that a "major review is underway by the Scientific Committee."[13]

Whale oil is used little today[14] and modern commercial whaling is primarily done for food. Both meat and blubber (muktuk) are eaten from narwhals, belugas and bowheads. From commercially hunted minkes, meat is eaten by humans or animals, and blubber is rendered down mostly to cheap industrial products such as animal feed or, in Iceland, as a fuel supplement for whaling ships.

International cooperation on whaling regulation began in 1931 and culminated in the signing of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in 1946. Its aim is to:

provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.[15]

International Whaling Commission

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up under the ICRW to decide hunting quotas and other relevant matters based on the findings of its Scientific Committee. Non-member countries are not bound by its regulations and conduct their own management programs. It regulates hunting of 13 species of great whales, and has not reached consensus on whether it may regulate smaller species.[16]

The IWC voted on July 23, 1982, to establish a moratorium on commercial whaling of great whales beginning in the 1985–86 season. Since 1992, the IWC's Scientific Committee has requested that it be allowed to give quota proposals for some whale stocks, but this has so far been refused by the Plenary Committee.

At the 2010 meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Morocco, representatives of the 88 member states discussed whether or not to lift the 24-year ban on commercial whaling. Japan, Norway and Iceland have urged the organisation to lift the ban. A coalition of anti-whaling nations has offered a compromise plan that would allow these countries to continue whaling, but with smaller catches and under close supervision. Their plan would also completely ban whaling in the Southern Ocean.[17] More than 200 scientists and experts have opposed the compromise proposal for lifting the ban, and have also opposed allowing whaling in the Southern Ocean, which was declared a whale sanctuary in 1994.[18][19] Opponents of the compromise plan want to see an end to all commercial whaling, but are willing to allow subsistence-level catches by indigenous peoples.[17]

Ongoing debate

Key elements of the debate over whaling include sustainability, ownership, national sovereignty, cetacean intelligence, suffering during hunting, health risks, the value of 'lethal sampling' to establish catch quotas, the value of controlling whales' impact on fish stocks and the rapidly approaching extinction of a few whale species.


The World Wide Fund for Nature says that 90% of all northern right whales killed by human activities are from ship collision, calling for restrictions on the movement of shipping in certain areas. Noise pollution threatens the existence of cetaceans. Large ships and boats make a tremendous amount of noise that falls into the same frequency range of many whales.[20] By-catch also kills more animals than hunting.[21] Some scientists believe pollution to be a factor.[22] Moreover, since the IWC moratorium, there have been several instances of illegal whale hunting by IWC nations. In 1994, the IWC reported evidence from genetic testing[23] of whale meat and blubber for sale on the open market in Japan in 1993.[24] In addition to the legally permitted minke whale, the analyses showed that the 10–25% tissues sample came from non minke, baleen whales, neither of which were then allowed under IWC rules. Further research in 1995 and 1996 shows significant drop of non-minke baleen whales sample to 2.5%.[25] In a separate paper, Baker stated that "many of these animals certainly represent a bycatch (incidental entrapment in fishing gear)" and stated that DNA monitoring of whale meat is required to adequately track whale products.[26]

It was revealed in 1994 that the Soviet Union had been systematically undercounting its catch. For example, from 1948 to 1973, the Soviet Union caught 48,477 humpback whales rather than the 2,710 it officially reported to the IWC.[27] On the basis of this new information, the IWC stated that it would have to rewrite its catch figures for the last forty years.[28] According to Ray Gambell, then Secretary of the IWC, the organization had raised its suspicions with the former Soviet Union, but it did not take further action because it could not interfere with national sovereignty.[29]

By country


Whaling was a major maritime industry in Australia from 1791 until its final cessation in 1978. At least 45 whaling stations operated in Tasmania during the 19th century and bay whaling was conducted out of a number of other mainland centres. Modern whaling using harpoon guns and iron hulled catchers was conducted in the twentieth century from shore-based stations in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, also in Norfolk Island. Overfishing saw the closure of some whaling stations before a government ban on the industry was introduced in 1978.


Canadians catch about 600 narwhals per year.[11] They catch 100 belugas per year in the Beaufort Sea[30] [31] and 300 in northern Quebec.[32] The annual catch in these areas varies between 300 and 400 belugas per year. Numbers are not available for Nunavut since 2003, when the Arviat area, with about half Nunavut's hunters, caught 200-300 belugas, though the authors say hunters resist giving complete numbers.[33] Harvested meat is sold through shops and supermarkets in northern communities where whale meat is a component of the traditional diet.[34] The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says:

"Canada has pursued a policy of marine mammal management which appears to be more to do with political expediency rather than conservation."

Canada left the IWC in 1982, and the only IWC-regulated species currently harvested by the Canadian Inuit is the bowhead whale.[35] As of 2004, the limit on bowhead whale hunting allows for the hunt of one whale every two years from the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin population, and one whale every 13 years from the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait population.[36] This is roughly one-fiftieth of the bowhead whale harvest limits in Alaska (see below).

Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands are legally part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but are geographically isolated and cultually distinct. The hunt, known as the Grindadráp, is regulated by Faroese authorities but not by the IWC, which does not claim jurisdiction over small cetaceans.

Around 800 long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melaena) are caught each year, mainly during the summer. Other species are not hunted, though occasionally Atlantic white-sided dolphin can be found among the pilot whales.

Most Faroese consider the hunt an important part of their culture and history and arguments about the topic raise strong emotions. Animal-rights groups criticize the hunt as being cruel and unnecessary and economically insignificant. Hunters claim that most journalists lack knowledge of the catch methods used to capture and kill the whales.


Greenlandic Inuit whalers catch around 175 large whales per year, mostly Minke whales,[37] as well as 360 narwhals,[11] 200 belugas,[38] [39] 190 pilot whales and 2,300 porpoises.[40]

IWC sets limits for large whales. The government of Greenland sets limits for narwhals and belugas. There are no limits on pilot whales and porpoises.[41]

The IWC treats the west and east coasts of Greenland as two separate population areas and sets separate quotas for each coast. The far more densely populated west coast accounts for over 90 percent of the catch. The average per year from 2012-2016 was around 150 minke and 17 fin whales and humpback whales taken from west coast waters and around 10 minke from east coast waters. In April 2009 Greenland landed its first bowhead whale in nearly forty years. It landed three bowheads each year in 2009 and 2010, one each in 2011 and 2015.

The Inuit already caught whales around Greenland since the years 1200–1300. They mastered the art of whaling around the year 1000 in the Bering Strait. The technique consists of spearing a whale with a spear connected to an inflated seal bladder. The bladder would float and exhaust the whale when diving, and when it surfaces; the Inuit hunters would spear it again, further exhausting the animal until they were able to kill it.

Vikings on Greenland also ate whale meat, but archaeologists believe they never hunted them on sea.[42]


Iceland is one of a handful of countries that still maintain a whaling fleet. One company concentrates on hunting fin whales, largely for export to Japan, while the only other one hunts minke whales for domestic consumption, as the meat is popular with tourists.[43] Iceland now has its own whale watching sector, which exists in uneasy tension with the whaling industry.[44]

Iceland did not object to the 1986 IWC moratorium. Between 1986 and 1989 around 60 animals per year were taken under a scientific permit. However, under strong pressure from anti-whaling countries, who viewed scientific whaling as a circumvention of the moratorium, Iceland ceased whaling in 1989. Following the IWC's 1991 refusal to accept its Scientific Committee's recommendation to allow sustainable commercial whaling, Iceland left the IWC in 1992.

Iceland rejoined the IWC in 2002 with a reservation to the moratorium. Iceland presented a feasibility study to the 2003 IWC meeting for catches in 2003 and 2004. The primary aim of the study was to deepen the understanding of fish–whale interactions. Amid disagreement within the IWC Scientific Committee about the value of the research and its relevance to IWC objectives,[45] no decision on the proposal was reached. However, under the terms of the convention the Icelandic government issued permits for a scientific catch. In 2003 Iceland resumed scientific whaling which continued in 2004 and 2005.

Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006. Its annual quota is 30 minke whales (out of an estimated 174,000 animals in the central and north-eastern North Atlantic[46]) and nine fin whales (out of an estimated 30,000 animals in the central and north-eastern North Atlantic[46][47]). For the 2012 commercial whaling season, starting in April and lasting six months, the quota was set to 216 minke whales,[48] of which 52 were caught.[49]


Lamalera, on the south coast of the island of Lembata, and Lamakera on neighbouring Solor are the two remaining Indonesian whaling communities. The hunters obey religious taboos that ensure that they use every part of the animal. About half of the catch is kept in the village; the rest is bartered in local markets. In 1973, the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sent a whaling ship and a Norwegian whaler to modernize their hunt. This effort lasted three years, and was not successful. According to the FAO report, the Lamalerans "have evolved a method of whaling which suits their natural resources, cultural tenets and style."[50] Lamalerans say they returned the ship because they immediately caught five sperm whales, too many to butcher and eat without refrigeration.[51]

Lamalera caught 5 sperm whales in 1973, about 40 per year in the 1960s and mid 1990s, 13 total from 2002-2006, 39 in 2007,[51], an average of 20 per year through 2014, and 3 in 2015.[52]


Japanese narrative screen showing a whale hunt off Wakayama

When the commercial whaling moratorium was introduced by the IWC in 1982, Japan lodged an official objection. However, in response to US threats to cut Japan's fishing quota in US territorial waters under the terms of the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment, Japan withdrew its objection in 1987. According to the BBC, America went back on this promise, effectively destroying the deal.[53] Since Japan could not resume commercial whaling, it began whaling on a purported scientific-research basis. Australia, Greenpeace, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and other groups dispute the Japanese claim of research “as a disguise for commercial whaling, which is banned.”[54][55] The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has attempted to disrupt Japanese whaling in the Antarctic since 2003.

The stated purpose of the research program is to establish the size and dynamics of whale populations. The Japanese government wishes to resume whaling in a sustainable manner under the oversight of the IWC, both for whale products (meat, etc.) and to help preserve fishing resources by culling whales. Anti-whaling organizations claim that the research program is a front for commercial whaling, that the sample size is needlessly large and that equivalent information can be obtained by non-lethal means, for example by studying samples of whale tissue (such as skin) or feces.[56] The Japanese government sponsored Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which conducts the research, disagrees, stating that the information obtainable from tissue and/or feces samples is insufficient and that the sample size is necessary in order to be representative.

Japan's scientific whaling program is controversial in anti-whaling countries. Countries opposed to whaling have passed non-binding resolutions in the IWC urging Japan to stop the program. Japan claims that whale stocks for some species are sufficiently large to sustain commercial hunting and blame filibustering by the anti-whaling side for the continuation of scientific whaling. Deputy whaling commissioner, Joji Morishita, told BBC News:

The reason for the moratorium [on commercial whaling] was scientific uncertainty about the number of whales. ... It was a moratorium for the sake of collecting data and that is why we started scientific whaling. We were asked to collect more data.[57]

This collusive relationship between whaling industry and the Japanese government is sometimes criticized from pro-whaling activists who supports local, small type coastal whalers such as Taiji dolphin drive hunt.[58]


Norway registered an objection to the International Whaling Commission moratorium and is thus not bound by it. Commercial whaling ceased for a five-year period to allow a small scientific catch for gauging the stock's sustainability and resumed 1993. Minke whales are the only legally hunted species. Catches have fluctuated between 487 animals in 2000 to 592 in 2007. For the year 2011 the quota is set at 1286 Minke whales.[59] The catch is made solely from the Northeast Atlantic minke whale population, which is estimated at 102,000.[60]


Whaling in the Philippines has been illegal since 1991 under Fisheries Administrative Order 185. The provision bans the catching, selling, or transporting of dolphins. The provision was amended in 1997 to include all Cetaceans including whales.[61] The calls for ban on whaling and dolphin hunting in the Philippines were raised by both domestic and international groups after local whaling and dolphin hunting traditions of residents of Pamilacan in Bohol were featured in newspapers in the 1990s. As compromise for residents of Pamilacan who were dependent on whaling and dolphin hunting, whale and dolphin watching is being promoted in the island as a source of tourism income.[62] Despite the ban, it is believed that the whaling industry in the Philippines did not cease to exist but went underground.[61]


Russia had a significant whaling hunt of orcas and dolphins along with Iceland and Japan. The U.S.S.R.'s harvest of over 534,000 whales between the 1960s and the 1970s has been called one of the most senseless environmental crimes of the 20th century.[63] In 1970, a study published by Bigg M.A. following photographic recognition of orcas found a significant difference in the suspected ages of whale populations and their actual ages. Following this evidence, the U.S.S.R. and then Russians continued a scientific whale hunt, though the verisimilitude of the intentions of the hunt over the last 40 years are questioned.[64][65]

The U.S.S.R.'s intensive illegal whaling from 1948 to 1972 was controlled and managed by the central government. In Soviet society, whaling was perceived to be a glamorous and well-paid job. Whalers were esteemed as well-traveled adventurers, and their return to land was often celebrated elaborately such as with fanfare and parades. In regard to economics, the U.S.S.R. transformed from a "rural economy into an industrial giant" by disregarding the sustainability of a resource to fill high production targets.[66] The government had controlled all industries, including fisheries, and whaling was not constrained by the need for sustainability through profits. Managers' and workers' production was incentivized with salary bonuses of 25%-60% and various other benefits, awards, and privileges. Many industries, whaling included, became a “manic numbers game”.[66]

Currently, Russians in Chukotka Autonomous Okrug in the Russian Far East are permitted under IWC regulation to take up to 140 gray whales from the North-East Pacific population each year. About 40 beluga whales are caught in the Sea of Okhotsk each year.[67] There are no recent data on catches in the Arctic Ocean or Bering Sea, where about 60 belugas per year were caught in the early 1980s.[68]

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Natives of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on the island of Bequia have a quota from the International Whaling Commission of up to four humpback whales per year using traditional hunting methods and equipment.[69]

South Korea

In early July 2012, during IWC discussions in Panama, South Korea said it would undertake scientific whaling as allowed despite the global moratorium on whaling. South Korea's envoy to the summit, Kang Joon-Suk, said that consumption of whale meat "dates back to historical times" and that there had been an increase in the minke whale population since the ban took place in 1986. "Legal whaling has been strictly banned and subject to strong punishments, though the 26 years have been painful and frustrating for the people who have been traditionally taking whales for food." He said that South Korea would undertake whaling in its own waters. New Zealand's Commissioner Gerard van Bohemen accused South Korea of putting the whale population at risk. He also cited Japan as having not contributed to science for several years despite undertaking scientific whaling. New Zealand's stated position may be seen by its media as less solid than Australia's on the matter given that its indigenous people are pushing forward with plans, unopposed by the government, to recommence whaling there.[70] The people of Ulsan have also traditionally and contemporarily eaten whale meat.[71] South Korea's representative at the IWC said that "this is not a forum for moral debate. This is a forum for legal debate. As a responsible member of the commission we do not accept any such categorical, absolute proposition that whales should not be killed or caught."[72]

United States

In the United States, beluga whaling is widely carried out, catching about 300 belugas per year,[30] monitored by the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee. The annual catch ranges between 250-600 per year.

Bowhead whaling is carried out by nine different indigenous Alaskan communities, and is managed by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission which reports to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The hunt takes around 50 bowhead whales a year from a population of about 10,500 in Alaskan waters. Conservationists fear this hunt is not sustainable, though the IWC Scientific Committee, the same group that provided the above population estimate, projects a population growth of 3.2% per year. The hunt also took an average of one or two gray whales each year until 1996. The quota was reduced to zero in that year due to sustainability concerns. A future review may result in the gray whale hunt being resumed. Bowhead whales weigh approximately 5–10 times as much as minke whales.[73]

The Makah tribe in Washington State also reinstated whaling in 1999, despite protests from animal rights groups. They are currently seeking to resume whaling of the gray whale,[74] a right recognized in the Treaty of Neah Bay.

Season Catch[75]
2003 48
2004 43
2005 68
2006 39
2007 63
All catches in 2003–2007 were bowhead whales.

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Further reading

  • D. Graham Burnett, The Sounding of the Whale (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013)
  • Mark Cioc, The Game of Conservation: International Treaties to Protect the World's Migratory Species (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009), Chapter 3 The Antarctic Whale Massacre, pp. 104-147
  • Kurk Dorsey, “National Sovereignty, the International Whaling Commission, and the Save the Whales Movement,” in Nation-States and the Global Environment. New Approaches to International Environmental History, Erika Marie Bsumek, David Kinkela and Mark Atwood Lawrence, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 43-61
  • Kurk Dorsey, Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)
  • Charlotte Epstein, The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005)
  • Anna-Katharina Wöbse, Weltnaturschutz: Umweltdiplomatie in Völkerbund und Vereinten Nationen, 1920-1950 (Frankfurt: Campus, 2011), Chapter 6 Der Reichtum der Meere, pp. 171-245
  • Frank Zelko, Make It a Green Peace!: The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), Chapters 7-9, pp. 161-231
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