Whales are primarily hunted for meat and blubber, which are sold as food products in countries like Japan and Iceland. Historically, whale blubber also supplied oil for lamps before petroleum became the dominant fuel source. Although the International Whaling Commission issued a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, individual countries can reject the ban or use loopholes to continue the practice.
Throughout the 20th century, thousands of whales were killed annually due to ongoing improvements in technology. While indigenous cultures hunt with simple harpoons, commercial whalers utilize harpoon cannons and sophisticated factory ships, that allow them to trap, kill and dissect these large beasts out in the open water.
In 1937 alone, 45,000 whales were hunted in the Antarctic. By the mid-1980s, approximately 2 million whales had been wiped out in the Southern Hemisphere, according to How Stuff Works. Despite the IWC's conservation efforts, whaling has eliminated 31,000 whales since 1986.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Japan, Norway and Iceland are the major proponents of whaling. Iceland withdrew from the IWC in 1992, but upon rejoining, the government refused to support the moratorium. For years, Japan has used a provisional loophole by developing a scientific whaling program intended for research; however, these scientific whaling companies are permitted to distribute the whale meat commercially. Both Japan and Norway set yearly whaling quotas that cannot be exceeded, but these limits are regulated internally, making it difficult for the IWC to intervene.