ear plug


[hwey-ling, wey-]

Whaling is the hunting of whales and dates back to at least 6,000 BC. The evolution of traditional Arctic whaling developed with increasing rapidity with early 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.

The formation of an International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1946 marks the beginning of modern whaling, with its consensus-based emphasis on conservation, resource management, and international cooperative standards. Contemporary arguments for and against whaling are the subjects of on-going contention. No resolution of these sometimes heated disputes appears likely in the foreseeable future.

History of whaling

Whaling began in prehistoric times and was initially confined to (near) coastal waters. Early whaling affected the development of widely disparate cultures – as, for example, in Norway and Japan. Although prehistoric hunting and gathering is generally considered to have had low ecological impact, early whaling in the Arctic altered freshwater ecology. The development of modern whaling techniques was spurred in the 19th century by the increase in demand for whale oil, sometimes known as "train oil" and in the 20th century by a demand for margarine and later whale meat.


The English Muscovy Company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1577, and the growth of its whaling fleet was gradual. The primary whaling grounds of this joint-stock company came to be centered around Spitsbergen in the early 17th Century. Initially the English tried to drive away competitors; but after a few years, they persisted in claiming only the waters southern half of the archipelago.

In the mid 1770s, government subsidies for whaling ships flying the English ensign were increased. Import tariffs and other economic restrictions limited access to British harbors for non-British ships and non-English whaling products. This led to a ten-fold increase in the English whaling fleet. These Acrtic gains were diminished by the fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784) and the Napoleonic Wars (1795-1802; 1803-1813). In 1816, there were 146 English whaling ships in the coastal waters of the Arctic; and the numbers of English whalers continued to dwindle for the next two decades. In the 1840s, the British government ended its whaling subsidies, ceding the market to the Americans and others.

Faroe Islands

Whaling in the Faroe Islands has been practiced since at least the 10th century. The hunts, called grindadráp in Faroese, are non-commercial and are organised on a community level; anyone can participate. The hunters first surround the whales (almost always Pilot Whales) with a wide semicircle of boats. The boats then drive the whales slowly into a bay or to the bottom of a fjord.


Whaling enjoyed royal patronage from the early 17th century. Cardinal Richelieu initiated and supported whaling activities from Le Havre. Cardinal Mazarin continued to support French whaling in the Arctic, but by the 1670s the industry collapsed. Government subsidies in the 18th and early 19th centuries encouraged the continued appearance of French-flagged ships in international whaling grounds, but the results were minimized by the effective competition from other whaling fleets.


Germany's whaling history began in the 17th century. After the end of the Napoleonic era, the numbers of stockholding whaling companies grew slowly and steadily. The port of Hamburg was traditionally one of the main centers of German whaling before the 1860s. When war with France broke out in 1870, German whaling stopped entirely for several decades.


Iceland has a long tradition of subsistence whaling; spear-drift whaling was practised from the 12th century or earlier and continued in a relic form until the late 19th century.

Modern whaling in Iceland began in 1883, and by 1935 an Icelandic company had renewed whaling operations. They hunted mostly Sei, Fin, and Minke Whales. In the early years of this operation, Blue, Sperm, and Humpback Whales were also hunted, but this was soon prohibited due to decimated numbers.


The oldest written mention of whaling in Japanese records is from Kojiki, the oldest extant Japanese book, which was written in the eighth century. In Man'yōshū, the word "whaling" (いさなとり) was frequently used in depicting the ocean or beaches. Modern historians note that these literary references are not specific. It is impossible to know whether these historic documents refer to the great whales or to some other species of small cetacean; nor does the scant evidence afford an opportunity to assess whether the whale hunts were opportunistic, subsistence, or commercial.

As early as the 13th century, records relating to Japanese whaling addressed ethical as well as practical issues. For example, at the Koganji temple in Nagato, Yamaguchi in southern Honshu island, a scroll preserves a story concerning Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in Japan: "He was in a fishing village in 1207. A fisherman and his wife approached him and told of their worries, saying 'We live on catching fish and eating them and selling them. Would we go to hell after we die?' And Shonin said, 'If you thank them and give proper service to them, praying for the resting in peace of those fish, then there will be no problem at all.'

Organized open-boat shore whaling in Japan began in the 1570s; and continued into the early 20th century. They first only used hand-harpoons and lances, but by the 1670s they employed nets as well. They targeted right and humpback whales, but also took blue, fin, sei/bryde's, and gray whales.

Japanese traditional whaling technique was dramatically modified in the 17th century with the introduction of the group hunting system.


The 17th- and 18th-century Dutch whaling successes were made possible by a fortuitous combination of people, ships, finances and know-how. The heyday of Dutch whale fishery developed in political, financial and economic contexts.


Since the earliest time, whaling has formed an important part of the economic basis for settlement along the Norwegian coast. The Minke whale is the smallest of the baleen whales; and these whales are traditionally caught by Norwegian fishermen during the summer months, which is the low season for other types of fishing. Minke whale meat is used for human consumption; and Norway has a long tradition of eating whale meat. Norwegian whaling techniques in the middle of the 19th century revolutionized whaling.

In 1883, Norway was granted permission by the Icelandic government to build whaling stations in Iceland; and when the nearby whaling grounds were depleted, Norwegian whalers moved their activities to the Arctic, where whales were still abundant and the operations more lucrative.

Modern whaling

Whale oil is little used today so modern commercial whaling is primarily the hunting of whales for food, while whaling for scientific-research purposes has also become an important practice, particularly since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The primary species hunted are the Common Minke Whale and Antarctic Minke Whale, two of the smallest species of baleen whales. Recent scientific surveys estimate a population of 103,000 in the northeast Atlantic and 665,074 around Antarctica.

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, whose aim is to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry". The IWC was set up under the terms of the ICRW for the purpose of making decisions on quota levels and other relevant matters based on the findings of its Scientific Committee. Countries which are not members of IWC are not bound by its regulations and conduct their own management programs.

The members of the IWC voted on 23 July 1982 to apply a moratorium to all commercial whaling 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. Norway legitimately continues to hunt Minke Whales commercially under IWC regulations, as it has lodged an official objection to the moratorium.


Nowadays, Canadian whaling is carried out by various Inuit groups around the country in small numbers and is managed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The meat obtained from this whaling is commercially sold through shops and supermarkets. This meat is typically not available in southern metropolitan centers such as Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal but is more available in northern communities where whale meat is a component of the traditional diet. There is considerable consternation amongst conservationists about the hunt. 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 as such is not bound by the moratorium on whaling.


In Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on the island of Bequia the International Whaling Commission allows natives of the island to catch up to four Humpback Whales per year using traditional hunting methods and equipment.

Faroe Islands

Around 950 Long-finned Pilot Whales (Globicephala melaena, actually a species of dolphin) are caught annually, mainly during the summer. Occasionally, other species are hunted as well, such as the Northern Bottlenose Whale and Atlantic White-sided Dolphin.

Faroese whaling is regulated by Faroese authorities but not by the IWC, who do not regulate the catching of small cetaceans.

Most Faroese consider the hunt an important part of their culture and history and arguments about the topic rarely fail to raise strong emotions. Animal-rights groups criticize the hunt as being cruel and unnecessary. The hunters claim in return that most journalists do not exhibit sufficient knowledge of the catch methods or its economic significance.


Greenland Inuit whalers caught around 175 whales per year, making them the third largest hunt in the world after Norway and Japan, though their take is only about one quarter of either Japan's or Norway's, which take 600 or more whales each year. 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 individuals caught. In a typical year around 150 minke and 10 Fin Whales are taken from west coast waters and around 10 minkes are from east coast waters.


Iceland did not lodge an objection against the 1982 IWC moratorium, which came into force in 1986. 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 altogether in 1989. Following the 1991 refusal of the IWC 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. This reservation is not recognized by a number of anti-whaling countries. In 2003 Iceland resumed scientific whaling. Iceland presented a feasibility study to the 2003 IWC meeting to take 100 minke, 100 fin, and 50 sei in each of 2003 and 2004. The primary aim of the study was to deepen the understanding of fish-whale interactions (the strongest advocates for a resumed hunt are fishermen concerned that whales are taking too many fish). The hunt was supported by three-quarters of the Icelandic population. Amid disagreement within the IWC Scientific Committee about the value of the research and its relevance to IWC objectives, 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 took 36 minke whales from a quota of 38. In 2004, it took 25 whales (the full quota). In 2005, the government issued a permit for a third successive year - allowing whalers to take up to 39 whales.

Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006. The annual quota is set to 30 minke whales (out of an estimated 174,000 animals in the central and north-eastern North Atlantic) and nine Fin Whales (out of an estimated 30,000 animals in the central and north-eastern North Atlantic).


Lamalera, on the south coast of the island of Lembata, and Lamakera on neighbouring Solor are the last two remaining Indonesian whaling communities. The hunters have 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 traded in local markets using a barter system. In 1973, the UN'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.


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 and thus became bound by the moratorium. However, according to the BBC, America went back on this promise, effectively destroying the deal. Since Japan could not resume commercial whaling, it began whaling on a scientific-research basis. 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 organisations 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 faeces. The Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which conducts the research, disagrees, stating that the information obtainable from tissue and/or faeces 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 that "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.

According to Joji Morhisita of Japanese Fisheries Agency, the Japanese public feel that anti-whaling groups are covertly racist. Norway issue around 1000 quota per year as opposed to Japan's 1,330. Moreover, Norway and Iceland hunt on a commercial basis. According to Morishita, "Singling out whaling is cultural imperialism - some people would say it's racism. Norway and Iceland are also whalers, but the criticism of Japan is stronger.


During the period 1946-1964, the involvement of the Netherlands in modern, post-war whaling in the Antarctic was intense. However, the current Dutch government opposes the practice of whaling, and supports extending the multi-national moratorium on commercial whaling. The Netherlands officially values the freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate, even on the high seas; but the Dutch government is also committed to the principle that all national and international laws governing safety at sea must be respected.


Year Quota Catch
1994 319 280
1995 232 218
1996 425 388
1997 580 503
1998 671 625
1999 753 591
2000 655 487
2001 549 550
2002 671 634
2003 711 646
2004 670 541
2005 797 639
2006 1052 546
2007 1052 592

Norway has registered an objection to the International Whaling Commission moratorium, and is thus not bound by it. In 1993, Norway resumed a commercial catch, following a period of five years where a small catch was made under a scientific permit. The catch is made solely from the Northeast Atlantic Minke Whale population, which is estimated to consist of 103,000 animals (2008 IWC). Norwegian Minke Whale catches have fluctuated between 487 animals in 2000 to 592 in 2007.

Prior to the moratorium, Norway caught around 2,000 Minkes per year. The North Atlantic hunt is divided into five areas and usually lasts from early May to late August. Norway exports a limited amount of whale meat to the Faroes and Iceland. It has been attempting to export to Japan for several years, though this has been hampered by concerns in the Japanese domestic market about the effects of pollution in the blubber of the North Atlantic Minke whale.

In May 2004, the Norwegian Parliament passed a resolution to considerably increase the number of Minkes hunted each year. The Ministry of Fisheries also initiated a satellite tracking programme of various whale species to monitor migration patterns and diving behaviour. The tagging research program has been underway since 1999.

Since 2006, when the Norwegian whaling quota was increased by 30%, Norwegian whalers have been allowed to hunt a quota of 1,052 Minke Whales a year. Since the 1993 hunt resumption the Norwegian quota has rarely been fully met.


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.

United States

Season Catch
2003 48
2004 43
2005 68
2006 39
2007 63
All catch in 2003-2007 was Bowhead whale.

In the United States whaling is carried out by Alaska natives from nine different communities in Alaska. The whaling program 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 concerns about sustainability. A review set to take place in the future may result in the hunt being resumed. Bowhead whales weigh approximately 5-10 times as much as Minke Whales .

The Makah tribe in Washington State also reinstated whaling in 1999, despite intense protests from animal rights groups. They are currently seeking to resume whaling of the Gray Whale , a right granted to the Makah by the Treaty of Neah Bay.

Ship collision, bycatch and illegal trade

WWF says that 90% of all whales being killed are from ship collision followed by catch and then hunting. Moreover, since the IWC moratorium, there have been several instances of illegal whale caching by IWC nations. In 1994, the IWC reported evidence from genetic testing of whale meat and blubber for sale on the open market in Japan in 1993. In addition to the legally-permitted minke whale, the analyses showed that the 10-25% tissues sample came from non minke, baleen whales species, neither of which were then allowed for take under the IWC rules. Further research in 1995 and 1996 shows significant drop of non-minke baleen whales sample to 2.5%. 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.

It was revealed in 1994 that the Soviet Union had been systematically underreporting the number of whales it took. 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. On the basis of this new information, the IWC stated that it would have to rewrite its catch figures for the last forty years. According to Ray Gambell, the Secretary of the IWC at the time, the organisation had raised its suspicions of underreporting with the former Soviet Union, but it did not take further action because it could not interfere with national sovereignty.

In 1985, an activist organization, Earthtrust, placed undercover employees on Korean fishing vessels who took photographs of both fin and right whales being hunted and processed in violation of the ban.

The arguments for and against whaling

International debates over whaling have focused on issues of sustainability and conservation as well as ownership and national sovereignty. Also raised in debates is the question of cetacean intelligence and the level of suffering which the animals undergo during harvest. Since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, the value of lethal sampling of whales for scientific research in order to establish catch quotas has also been debated. Finally, the value of whaling to fisheries as a method of controlling whales' perceived negative impact on fish stocks is another point of debate.

Conservation status

Today there is widespread agreement around the world that it is morally wrong to exterminate a species of animal. Prior to the setting up of the IWC in 1946, unregulated whaling had depleted a number of whale populations to a significant extent, and several whales species were severely endangered. Whaling and other threats have led to at least five of the 13 great whales being listed as endangered. A past ban which was implemented around the 1960s has helped some of these species of whale to recover. According to IUCN's Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG), "Several populations of southern right whales, humpbacks in many areas, grey whales in the eastern North Pacific, and Blue Whales in both the eastern North Pacific and central North Atlantic have begun to show signs of recovery.

Other whale species, however (in particular the Minke Whale) have never been considered endangered.

Despite this, those opposed to whaling argue that a return to full-scale commercial whaling will lead to economic concerns overriding those of conservation, and there is a continuing battle between each side as to how to describe the current state of each species. For instance, conservationists are pleased that the Sei Whale continues to be listed as endangered, but Japan says that the species has swelled in number from 9,000 in 1978 to about 28,000 in 2002, so its catch of 50 Sei whales per year is safe and the classification of endangered should be reconsidered for the North Pacific population.

Some North Atlantic states have recently argued that Fin whales should not be listed as endangered anymore and criticize the list for being inaccurate. IUCN has recorded studies showing that more than 40,000 individuals are present in the North Atlantic Ocean around Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. There is no information about Fin Whales in areas outside of the Northern Atlantic, where they still hold the status of being endangered.

A complete list of whale conservation statuses as listed by The World Conservation Union (IUCN) is given below. Note that, in the case of the blue and gray whales, the IUCN distinguishes the statuses of various populations. These populations, while not regarded as separate species, are considered sufficiently important in term of conservation.

Extinct Critically Endangered Endangered Vulnerable Lower Risk
(Conservation Dependent)
Lower Risk
(Near Threatened)
Lower Risk
(Least Concern)
None Gray Whale
Northwest Pacific population
(cf. Northeast Pacific population)

Additionally, the IUCN notes that the Atlantic population of gray whales was made extinct around the turn of the eighteenth century.


Farming whales in captivity has never been attempted and would almost certainly be logistically impossible. Instead, whales are killed at sea often using explosive harpoons, which puncture the skin of a whale and then explode inside its body. Anti-whaling groups say this method of killing is cruel, particularly if carried out by inexperienced gunners, because a whale can take several minutes or even hours to die . In March 2003, Whalewatch, an umbrella group of 140 conservation and animal welfare groups from 55 countries, led by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), published a report, Troubled Waters, whose main conclusion was that whales cannot be guaranteed to be killed humanely and that all whaling should be stopped. The report quoted official figures that said 20% of Norwegian and 60% of Japanese-killed whales failed to die as soon as they had been harpooned. WSPA further released a report in 2008 entitled Whaling: Defying international commitments to animal welfare? in which the slaughter of whales is compared – unfavorably – with slaughter guidelines for farm animals from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

John Opdahl of the Norwegian embassy in London responded by saying that Norwegian authorities worked with the IWC to develop the most humane methods. He said that the average time taken for a whale to die after being shot was the same as or less than that of animals killed by big game hunters on safari. Pro-whalers also say that the free-roaming lifestyle of whales followed by a quick death is less cruel than the long-term suffering of factory-farmed animals.

In response to the UK's opposition to the resumption of commercial whaling on the grounds that no humane method of catching whales exists, or "is on the horizon", the pro-whaling High North Alliance points to apparent inconsistencies in the policies of some anti-whaling nations by drawing comparisons between commercial whaling and recreational hunting. For instance, the United Kingdom allows the commercial shooting of deer without these shoots adhering to the standards of British slaughterhouses, but says that whalers must meet such standards as a pre-condition before they would support whaling. Moreover, fox hunting, in which foxes are mauled by dogs, is legal in many anti-whaling countries including Ireland, the United States, Portugal, Italy and France (although not in the United Kingdom) according to UK Government's Burns Inquiry (2000). Pro-whaling nations argue that they should not be expected to adhere to animal-welfare standards which anti-whaling countries do not themselves follow consistently, and draw the conclusion that the cruelty argument is a mere expression of cultural bigotry, similar to the Western attitude towards the eating of dog meat in several East Asian countries.

The economic argument

The whale watching industry and anti-whaling advocates argue that whaling catches "friendly" whales that are curious about boats, as these whales are the easiest to catch. This analysis claims that once the economic benefits of hotels, restaurants and other tourist amenities are considered, hunting whales is a net economic loss. This argument is particularly contentious in Iceland, as it has among the most-developed whale-watching operations in the world and the hunting of Minke Whales resumed in August 2003. Brazil, Argentina and South Africa argue that whale watching is a growing billion-dollar industry that provides more revenue and more equitable distribution of profits than commercial whaling by pelagic fleets from far-away developed countries would provide. Peru, Uruguay, Australia, and New Zealand also support proposals to permanently forbid whaling South of the Equator, as Indonesia is the only country in the Southern Hemisphere with a whaling industry. Anti-whaling groups claim that developing countries which support a pro-whaling stance are damaging their economies by driving away anti-whaling tourists.

Pro-whaling advocates argue that the economic analysis assumes unsustainable whaling by arguing that whaling deprives the whale-watching industry of whales, and counter that if whales are hunted on a sustainable basis, there is no competition between the two industries. Furthermore, they point out that most whaling takes place outside of coastal areas where whale watching takes place, and communication between any whaling fleet and whale-watching boats would ensure that whaling and whale watching occurred in different areas. Pro-whaling advocates also argue that whaling continues to provide employment in the fishery, logistic and restaurant industries and that whale blubber can be converted into valuable oleochemicals while whale carcasses can be rendered into meat and bone meal. Poorer whaling nations argue that the need for resumption of whaling is pressing. Horace Walters, from the Eastern Caribbean Cetacean Commission stated, "We have islands which may want to start whaling again - it's expensive to import food from the developed world, and we believe there's a deliberate attempt to keep us away from our resources so we continue to develop those countries' economies by importing from them.


While whales possess the largest physical brains of any animal, there is no consensus about the existence, nature and magnitude of cetacean intelligence. This lack of knowledge is partly because of the cost and difficulty of carrying out research with marine mammals. Humpback whales have been found to have spindle neurons, a type of brain cell previously considered to exist only in dolphins, humans and other primates, and some species of whale are highly social.

There is an argument that whales should not be killed because of their alleged high intelligence. Pro-whalers counter that pigs, which also possess high intelligence, are routinely butchered and eaten, or indeed that intelligence should not be the determining factor of whether an animal is acceptable to eat or not.

Safety of eating whale meat

Whale meat products from certain species have been shown to contain pollutants such as PCBs, mercury, and dioxins. Levels of pollutants in toothed-whale products are significantly higher than those of baleen whales, reflecting the fact that toothed whales feed at a higher trophic level than baleen whales in the food chain (other high-up animals such as sharks, swordfish and large tuna show similarly high levels of mercury contamination). Organochloride pesticides HCH and HCB are also at higher levels in toothed species, while Minke Whales show higher levels than most other baleens.

The red meat and blubber of (toothed) Long-finned Pilot Whales in the Faroe islands show high toxin levels, which has a detrimental effect on those who eat it. However, in Norway, only the red meat of Minke Whales is eaten and the levels of toxins conform to national limits, while Japanese health-ministry scientists have found that Minkes harvested from the Antarctic, the vast majority of the whale meat eaten in Japan, are similarly within national standards for mercury and PCB levels.

Whale meat is very high in protein and very low in saturated fat.


Whalers say that whaling is an essential condition for the successful operation of commercial fisheries, and thus the plentiful availability of food from the sea that consumers have become accustomed to. This argument is made particularly forcefully in Atlantic fisheries, for example the cod-capelin system in the Barents Sea. A Minke Whale's annual diet consists of 10 kilograms of fish per kilogram of body mass, which puts a heavy predatory pressure on commercial species of fish, thus whalers say that an annual cull of whales is needed in order for adequate amounts of fish to be available for humans. Anti-whaling campaigners say that the pro-whaling argument is inconsistent: if the catch of whales is small enough not to negatively affect whale stocks, it is also too small to positively affect fish stocks. To make more fish available, they say, more whales will have to be caught, putting populations at risk. Additionally, whale feeding grounds and commercial fisheries do not always overlap.

Professor Daniel Pauly, Director of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia weighed into the debate in July 2004 when he presented a paper to the 2004 meeting of the IWC in Sorrento. Pauly's primary research is the decline of fish stocks in the Atlantic, under the auspices of the Sea Around Us Project. This report was commissioned by Humane Society International, an active anti-whaling lobby, and stated that although cetaceans and pinnipeds are estimated to eat 600 million tonnes of food per year, compared with just 150 million tonnes eaten by humans (although researchers at the Japanese Institute for Cetacean Research give figures of 90 million tonnes for humans and 249-436 million tonnes for cetaceans), much of the food eaten by cetaceans (in particular, deep sea squid and krill) is not consumed by humans. However, Japanese do eat krill, and krill is also used in large quantities by fish farms as feed. Pauly's report also claims that the locations where whales and humans catch fish only overlap to a small degree, and he also considers more indirect effects of whales' diet on the availability of fish for fisheries. He concludes that whales are not a significant reason for diminished fish stocks.

More recent studies have also concluded that there are several factors contributing to the decline in fish stocks, such as pollution and habitat loss.

However, the dietary behaviour of whales differ among species as well as season, location and availability of prey. For example, Sperm Whales' prey primarily consists of mesopelagic squid. However, in Iceland, they are reported to consume mainly fish. In addition to krill, Minke Whales are known to eat a wide range of fish species including capelin, herring, sand lance, mackerel, gadoids, cod, saithe and haddock. Minke Whales are estimated to consume 633,000 tons of Atlantic herring per year in part of Northeast Atlantic. In the Barents Sea, it is estimated that a net economic loss of five tons of cod and herring per fishery results from every additional Minke Whale in the population due the fish consumption of the single whale.

Value for research

Since the 1986 IWC ban on whaling, Japan has conducted its whaling by issuing scientific research permits. The value of "lethal sampling" of whales is a highly contentious issue. The stated aim of the Japanese JARPA research program is to establish sustainable whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.

Lethal sampling is required to obtain age information, which can be reliably gathered by looking at the ear plug in the head of the dead animal. Japan initially argued that simple population distribution of whale species is enough to determine the level of sustainability of the hunt and argued that certain species of whale, particularly minke whales, are in sufficient number to be hunted. The anti-whaling side countered by arguing that more accurate composition of population distribution in term of age and sex distribution is needed to determine the sustainability, which ironically provided the justification for the Japanese hunt under the scientific research exemption. Within the framework of the RMP computer modeling, age data is not needed to establish a catch limit for whaling, which is the stated goal of the Japanese research. The IWC requires information on population structure, abundance and prior whaling history, which anti-whalers argue can be obtained through non-lethal means. However, the IWC Scientific Committee acknowledge the usefulness of the data from JARPA here:


The abolitionist animal rights perspective states that environmental concerns, possible cetacean intelligence, and animal welfare concerns are irrelevant. Abolitionist animal rights proponents argue that whales, like all animals, are sentient. They believe that this is reason enough not to harm or exploit them in any way.


Further reading


  • Melville, H., The Whale. London: Richard Bentley, 1851 3 vols. (viii, 312; iv, 303; iv, 328 pp.) Published October 18, 1851. (later re-published in New York as Moby-Dick)
  • Muller, C. G., (2006). Echoes in the Blue. Koru Press. ISBN 978-0-615-13594-6
  • Day, D., (1997). The Whale War. Sierra Club Books. ISBN 0-871-56778-4
  • Mulvaney, K. (2003). The Whaling Season: An Inside Account of the Struggle to Stop Commercial Whaling. Washington D.C.: Island Press. ISBN 1559639784
  • Haug, T., Lindstrøm, U., Nilssen, K.T., Røttingen, I. And Skaug, H.J. (1996) Diet and food availability for Northeast Atlantic minke whales, Balaenoptera acutorostrata. Rep. Int. Whal. Commn.
  • Folkow, L. P., Haug, T., Nilsen, K. T., Nordøy, E. S. (1997) Estimated prey consumption of minke whales Balaenoptera acutorostrata in Northeast Atlantic waters in 1992-1995. Document ICES CM 1997/GG:01.
  • Schokkenbroek, Joost C. A. (2008). Trying-out: An Anatomy of Dutch Whaling and Sealing in the Nineteenth Century, 1815-1885. Amsterdam: Aksant Academic Publishers. 10-ISBN 9-052-60283-2; 13-ISBN 978-9-052-60283-7 (cloth)
  • Schweder, T., Hagen, G. S. and Hatlebakk, E. (2000) Direct and indirect effects of minke whale abundance on cod and herring fisheries: A scenario experiment for the Greater Barents Sea. NAMMCO Scientific publications
  • Tønnessen, Johan and Arne Odd Johnsen (1982). The history of modern Whaling. London: C. Hurst & Co. 10-ISBN 0-905-83823-8; 13-ISBN 978-0-905-83823-6; [Canberra : Australian National University Press. 10-ISBN 0-708-10749-4; 13-ISBN 978-0-708-10749-2]; [Berleley: University of California Press. 10-ISBN 0-520-03973-4]; [OCLC 8860504]


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