Whaling: unfinished business

The Basques of Spain were hunting whales 1000 years ago, but as recently as a century ago the Southern Ocean's great whales were relatively undisturbed. Until then, the slower right, humpback and sperm whales sustained the industry. Herman Melville, creator of Moby Dick, wrote in the mid-1800s that 'there is no means to catch the fin whale, or its fast cousins' – the fin, blue, sei and Brydes whales outpaced their slow pursuers. Modern shipping changed everything. Now the largest and fastest of the whales could be hunted, and with the advent of factory ships in the mid-1920s, whales could be slaughtered and processed in vast numbers. In the space of a few short decades whale populations were seriously depleted.

Whaling activities were suspended during the Second World War but this short period was not enough to allow whale populations to recover to sustainable levels. In order to promote the establishment of a system of international regulation for whaling to ensure the proper and effective conservation and development of whale stocks, a new convention was developed to succeed the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling (1937) – namely the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946).

This convention established the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which had as one of its main tasks the regulation of the number of whales taken and of setting annual quotas for a sustainable level of exploitation. The system failed, barely reducing the numbers of whales killed from pre-war years. An alarming drop in whale catches by the 1960s caused the IWC to begin to take relatively drastic conservation measures by establishing full protection for the blue whale and reduced quotas for fin and sei.

The current era of whale protection reached its heights in 1986 when the IWC, to allow whale stocks to recover, set a zero catch quota for both pelagic and coastal whaling while it developed a better quota-setting method for when stocks had recovered sufficiently for hunting to resume. This became known as the 'moratorium' on commercial whaling. A small number of countries lodged objections to the moratorium, (Japan, Norway and the Soviet Union), but Japan later removed its objection. Norway continued commercial whaling and after a short period Japan turned its whaling efforts to so-called 'scientific' whaling.

In 1994, the IWC's scientific committee developed a revised management procedure (RMP) which uses a computer model to set allowable commercial catches. This model has not been implemented as the IWC decided that it alone would not be sufficient to regulate whaling and agreed to develop a 'Revised Management Scheme' to put in place management arrangements such as international observer schemes and DNA registers. While the moratorium on whaling remains in place to this day, since 1994 Norway, which formally objected to the moratorium, has been implementing the RMP model to set its own quotas for a commercial take of minke whales in the North Atlantic. Japan has continued to conduct 'scientific' whaling, and takes up to 400 minke whales each year from the Southern Ocean, as well as minke, Brydes and sperm whales from the North Pacific. These whales are sold for domestic consumption in Japan and yield about $80 million in revenue, which, along with Japanese government support, is used to fund their whaling operations.

The Australian Government has a strong policy that there should be a permanent and global end to whaling and in this context, argues that the life history of whales can effectively be studied without killing them.

Humpbacks and southern right whales are starting to recover from their exploitation and are now common visitors to Australian coastal waters during their northern migrations. A rapidly-expanding new industry involves an estimated nine million people in 87 countries spending more than $2 billion for the privilege of watching these animals. The blue whale, the largest creature that ever lived, remains highly endangered, and only time will tell if there were sufficient left after whaling for their numbers to recover. The debate about commercial whaling continues in the IWC.

Nick Gales
Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program,
Australian Antarctic Division

This page was last modified on 15 May 2002.