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Despite decreasing demand for whale meat and dwindling populations, the hunt for whales continues.
Words by Jennifer Mishler
Whale hunting is nothing new, but many might be surprised to learn it is still legal in three countries. The practice has existed for millennia, and the intensification of whaling brought devastating impacts. Three million whales were killed in the 20th century alone, and the widespread hunting of whales pushed some species to the edge of extinction.
Today, whaling is prohibited by most countries around the world — but not everywhere. Three nations continue to hunt whales commercially, despite disappearing demand for whale meat and opposition from environmentalists and animal advocates. Here’s what you need to know about the declining whale industry, why it still exists — and the movement to stop whale hunting.
As the Guardian notes, whaling largely began in the Middle Ages and “was once a voracious industry on which half the world’s economy was built.”
Norwegians and Basques were among the world’s first whalers, and the right whale was an early target. A slow and thick-blubbered species, the right whale got its name from being viewed as “the right whale to kill.”
Sperm, bowhead and baleen whales followed, hunted for their meat, skin, blubber and oil. This, despite sperm whales being an extremely dangerous species to hunt. At the time, whaling was conducted with handheld harpoons, and some whalers did not survive the risky voyages thatcould last several years. Unsurprisingly, it was not the workers, but mostly whaling company owners who profited.
In the U.S., whaling was intensive in the 1700s and 1800s, becoming a major industry in Nantucket, New Bedford and other parts of the northeastern region as whales were targeted for oil. U.S. whaling spread to Pacific and Arctic waters after Atlantic populations were decimated.
Whaling spread as demand increased. Just how long whaling continued in much of the world may come as a surprise. It was a moratorium on whale hunting, implemented by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, that signaled the beginning of the end for the industry. Humane Society International estimates that the death of tens of thousands of whales was prevented by this ban.
Small-scale traditional and subsistence Indigenous whaling continues today, but this article will focus on the few nations — Iceland, Japan and Norway — that still hunt whales commercially, as well as signs that Iceland is abandoning this practice.
Today, commercial operations target whales for their meat. Historically, however, nearly every part of a whale was sought after — including their blubber and the oil extracted from it, cartilage and organs.
Some whale species, including orcas and belugas, are also still hunted and captured alive to be sold for captivity in aquariums and marine parks.
Sperm oil was produced when spermaceti (discussed below) was removed from the fatty liquid taken from a sperm whale’s head, and sulfur was added.
This oil was often used in machinery and turned into fatty acids for soaps, detergents and other products.
Spermaceti is not an oil, but a fatty liquid wax. Spermaceti is found in the heads of sperm whales. It is produced by the animals’ spermaceti organs.
Strips of blubber were cut from a whale, then further cut down once onboard a ship. The blubber was then boiled, a process that rendered fat into oil. The resulting whale oil was used in soap and margarine, candles, lamps and explosives.
Baleen are ekratin-based plates that hang from the roofs of some whales’ mouths. They help to filter the large amounts of water gulped in, leaving only small prey such as krill and plankton behind, as the whales send the water back out.
Baleen was used for structure in clothing items, such as corsets and skirt hoops, but was also used in other types of products, including umbrellas.
Ambergris is a waxy substance that, at times, forms in the intestines of sperm whales. It remains uncertain how ambergris comes out of a whale’s body; some researchers believe that indigestible parts of prey consumed emerge in vomit, while others think it ends up in feces.
Although commercial whaling continues in only three nations, modern technology has made whales easier targets.
Historically, whales were stabbed with handheld harpoons that tethered them to the whaling boat. Modern whaling operations are able to use sonar to locate whales, and have trigger-released harpoons that allow whalers to keep their distance.
In the past, harpooned whales would become exhausted attempting to break free from the harpoon, enabling the hunters to approach more closely and fatally stab the whale.
Today’s whaling operations use exploding harpoons fired mechanically from aboard the ships, though research shows that this does not necessarily mean a quicker or less painful death for the animals. Norwegian data reveals that whales can take up to 25 minutes to die from this method.
Today, whales can be processed quickly by large crews. Japan has operated the world’s only whaling factory vessel, capable of butchering whales while still at sea. Aiming to replace the Nisshin Maru whaling operation, Japan is currently constructing a new whale processing ship.
While Indigenous hunts continue in parts of the world, including the United States, it and most other nations have officially banned whaling for commercial purposes.
Norway remains a member of the International Whaling Commission, and continues to hunt minke whales.
On the other hand, Iceland left the International Whaling Commission in 1992, and has continued its commercial whaling since. Following a concerning animal welfare report, Iceland halted fin whale hunting for 2023; a move that could bring the end of the nation’s dwindling whaling industry.
While still a member of the International Whaling Commission, Japan continued an annual Antarctic whale hunt, which the nation stated was for “scientific research.” However, in 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled Japan’s whaling was not being used for research purposes, and ordered that Japan end its hunting under the permit granted.
Five years later, Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission, announcing that it would resume commercial whaling.
With domestic demand for whale on the decline, the Japanese whaling industry has recently been attempting to boost demand, selling whale meat in vending machines, as well as marketing whale to tourists and influencers.
Due to the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling, the hunting of whales is illegal in most of the world. But as mentioned previously, three nations — Japan, Norway and Iceland — reject the ban and continue with large-scale whaling operations.
Dolphins are technically considered whales ( both are cetaceans), but not by the Commission. Japan also targets species of dolphins in an annual hunt — documented in the film “The Cove” — capturing the animals for slaughter, as well as for captivity in marine parks and aquariums.
The whaling moratorium was decided on in 1982 and went into effect in 1986. The 88 member nations of the International Whaling Commission abide by this ban.
Commercial whaling continues to be conducted by Japan, Norway and Iceland.
Commercial whaling operations are still considered legal by Iceland, Norway and Japan, and the latter country continues to subsidize its whaling industry.
The future of Icelandic whaling — currently only undertaken by one company, Hvalur hf — remains uncertain, yet the government recently declined to make a temporary ban permanent, allowing legal whaling to continue.
Norway killed 580 whales in 2022, and has reportedly hunted 15,000 whales since the 1986 moratorium was established.
The numbers of whales hunted by Japan has been decreasing most years, although the nation intends to ramp up its whaling operations. In 2018, Japan killed 640 whales, compared to 383 in 2021 and 270 in 2022.
Iceland’s 2019-2023 quotas permitted the killing of 217 minke whales and 209 fin whales. The Guardian reports that despite these allowances, only one whale was killed in the past three years in Iceland, as whaling companies halted their operations. Previous statements suggested that amid declining demand, whaling could be ended permanently in 2024 — especially in light of an alarming animal welfare report, which revealed that 40 percent of whales took around 11.5 minutes to die. This finding was in violation of animal protection standards, prompting Iceland’s government to cancel the 2023 fin whale season. However, as of September 1, 2023, the Icelandic government decided against a permanent ban.
Opponents of whaling argue that the practice has decimated whale populations and that whaling is not sustainable. Animal advocates also believe that whales suffer a cruel death at the hands of whalers. Furthermore, researchers believe that the consumption of whale meat is bad for human health.
While countries that continue whaling argue that hunting operations are sustainable, many researchers and environmentalists believe differently, citing the impact on whale numbers thus far. Sperm whales declined to one-third of their population prior to whaling, and up to 90 percent of blue whales were decimated, 2015 research concluded.
Whale meat often contains high levels of mercury, prompting some experts to warn that whale meat is unsafe to consume. A 2015 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, sampling 341 whale and dolphin products sold in Japan over the previous 15 years, found that 56 percent contained mercury levels above those considered safe by the government.
Animal advocates believe that whales suffer a slow and agonizing death, despite today’s use of exploding harpoons. “Even the most advanced whaling methods cannot guarantee an instantaneous death or ensure that struck animals are rendered insensible to pain and distress before they die, as is the generally accepted standard for domestic food animals,” writes the Animal Welfare Institute.
Large-scale whaling has been outlawed by most of the world, and the recent adoption of a High Seas Treaty could protect many whales and other marine species from human threats. Demand for whale meat has largely vanished, and yet, whales continue to be targeted by commercial industries based in Iceland, Norway and Japan.
However, many organizations and advocates are working to end these remaining whaling operations and offer ways that individuals can get involved. You can start by protecting the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species still recovering from the toll of whaling and entanglement in fishing gear.
Eliminating one’s consumption of seafood is also a powerful way to help protect all marine life from the impacts of commercial industries.
Sentient Media’s Take Action page is another place to find simple ways to make a difference for animals and the environment.
Hemi Kim contributed research for this story. This piece has been updated.
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