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Whales and Whaling

There are more than a dozen different types of whales, from the enormous blue whale to the dwarf sperm whale. The population of the different species of whales varies from only 300 North Atlantic right whales to an estimated 800,000 minke whales worldwide. Most whales are protected under international conventions. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is an intergovernmental organization that regulates the conservation of whales and whale hunting.  Membership is open to any country, but each member country must adhere to the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) agreement.

The IWC recognizes three types of whaling:

Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling supports the needs of indigenous communities. The IWC sets whale catch limits for communities that hunt for cultural purposes. Each year, the Faroe Islands in Denmark partake in this type of whaling, killing over 800 whales each summer. In a practice called whale driving, many of these whales are forced to beach before they are brutally killed with knives and harpoons. By contrast, nine indigenous Alaskan communities in the United States kill approximately 50 whales annually, while in Canada, Inuit communities hunt no more than three whales each year.

Commercial Whaling consists of whale hunting for profit and is also regulated by the IWC. In 1986, the IWC placed a moratorium on commercial whaling.

Special Permit Whaling or Scientific Whaling is not regulated by the IWC. Countries are asked to submit research proposals to the IWC for review, but the IWC’s role in this process is strictly advisory. .

Despite the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, the following three countries continue to actively partake in commercial whaling.  It is estimated these three countries alone kill over 2,000 whales each year.

  • Iceland left the IWC in 1992 while engaged in scientific whaling, then rejoined in 2006 under reservation to the 1986 moratorium, after it resumed commercial whaling as well. Since then, hundreds of whales have been killed each year in Iceland, although less than 2% of the population consumes whale meat. A majority of the meat is used for export.
  • Japan continues scientific whaling, which is wildly recognized as a guise for commercial whaling operations. In 2014, the International Court of Justice issued an opinion declaring that Japan must stop its whaling program in the Southern Ocean because it violated three provisions of the ICRW. Today, Japan continues whaling in both the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific.
  • Norway objects to the 1986 moratorium, and after resuming commercial whaling in 1994, it now kills more whales than Iceland and Japan combined.

Over 50,000 whales have been killed since the 1986 ban went into effect. Whale hunters often resort to grenade harpooning, which results in a slow and painful death for the whales who are already exhausted from being pursued. In addition, whales are being hunted at unsustainable rates because they have long life spans and produce young at a slow rate. As the demand for whale meat continues to decline worldwide, there no need to continue inhumane whale hunting.

Whale populations have also been threatened by the U.S. Navy’s use of sonar, including a low frequency active sonar (LFA) that is used in a vast majority of the oceans and covers thousands of square miles while emitting dangerous levels of noise. It has been alleged, based on numerous studies of whale behavior during military testing, that sonar activity results in reduced vocalizations, the interruption of feeding and changes in direction. It is also believed to contribute to the otherwise unexplained mass beaching of whales.

A challenge was made to a final rule adopted by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, giving blanket approval to the Navy’s planned use of LFA without complying with strict requirements under the Marine Mammal Protection Act that the agency mitigate the effects of incidental taking. In NRDC v. Pritzker (July 2016), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Fisheries Service did not give adequate protection to areas of the world’s oceans flagged by its own experts as biologically important. The matter has been remanded for further action, but this case is an important step towards limiting the use wide-scale use of sonar in the oceans.