Commercial Whaling: is the Industry Finally Going to Disappear?

Whaling is the act of hunting and killing whales, and it has peaked interest in recent weeks when Japan announced it would be withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The IWC is the regulating body that wards off the threats of commercial whaling, looking to protect all species, including all dolphins and porpoises. Its inception was in 1946, and presently  has 89 member countries, where they meet once every two years. We are, at the time of writing, still including Japan as a member state, although they have announced their highly controversial decision to quit the IWC to resume commercial whaling in July 2019.

Now, Japan has argued the case that stocks have sufficiently recovered to resume a sustainable whaling operation again. Thus resuming a practice that dates back to 3000 BC, and greatly accelerated when commercial whaling began in the late 1800s. This ancient procedure has caused whale populations to plummet over time, with some of the most commonly hunted species being Blue Whales, Fin Whales, Sei Whales and Minke Whales.

Thankfully, peak whaling occurred back in the 1961/62 seasons, where a monstrous 66,000 whales were slaughtered in the Antarctic/Southern Ocean alone. This was during a time when the IWC had very little powers of enforcement, and whaling was fair game. And for a staggering figure (brace yourself), global commercial whaling has resulted in the death of 2.9 million whales in the twentieth century, from 1900-1999. And given the sheer size of whales, this makes for the biggest animal exploitation in human history, in terms of biomass.

Figure A – the graph is split into the North and Southern Hemisphere, and highlighting, by species, the number of whales killed in the 20th Century.

A critical point was reached, and in 1986 a moratorium (the ceasing of an activity) was introduced for all members of the IWC. Meaning, a ban was introduced to end whaling operations. However, countries find loopholes, such as Japan with their scientific whaling programme, which many believe is used as a cover-up for their ongoing commercial whaling trade. And some countries refuse to accept the moratorium entirely.

Why Kill Whales?

Firstly, let’s define commercial whaling. When you think of commerce, you think of the buying and selling of goods to make a profit, which leads to sustainable growth over time. So, people are in it for the money. However, commercial whaling isn’t actually that profitable anymore. In fact, it is totally illegal. Every country has a catch limit set to ZERO with regards to commercial whaling. There are very few nations who actually (knowingly anyway) hunt whales now. But of course, when there is a will there is a way. There are ways to get a special permit for whaling, which can be done through scientific purposes, with Japan following this mysterious route, and Norway and Iceland just flat out rejecting the regulations.

In the 2016/17 Antarctic seasons, Japan killed 90 Sei Whales, 26 Bryde’s Whales and 372 Minke Whales (488 total), all for ‘scientific’ purposes. However, this is just what is reported to the IWC, and given the unscrupulous procedures already existing, you have to think that these numbers are lower than in reality.

If fact, the programmes have been widely criticized on these grounds, with very little to no scientific advancements made. The International Court of Justice deemed this to be the case in 2014. It really is seen by most as a cover-up for ongoing commercial whaling. But why bother? Continue reading to find the answer.

There used to be a multitude of reasons to hunt whales during and before the 20th Century. Nowadays, more sustainable substitutions have occurred so there is very little need to hunt these wonderful marine mammals. Whales were largely hunted for their blubber, the fat of sea mammals, and in fact, it was the foundation of the highly lucrative whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. After the unfortunate death of the whale, the blubber was rendered to make whale oil by slowly cooking the fat in a large iron cauldron. The whale oil would be used to make whale oil lamps, margarine, soaps and paints. It was even used to lubricate machinery.

So you may be asking, why even bother with whaling nowadays? Well, that’s a good question, and a puzzling one for many. There used to be a huge demand for whaling, and with a high demand comes a high price tag. In the early 1960s the Japanese consumed 200,000 tones of whale meat, and that number has dwindled to 5000 tonnes per year. If the demand isn’t there, neither is the money.

Major Culprits


Since Japans scientific whaling programme began, it has comprised whaling in the North Pacific and Antarctic oceans. And ‘in the name of science’, Japan has killed more than 10,000 whales since 1987 from their two whaling programmes: JARPN II and JARPA.

Figure B – the number of whale deaths by species, caused by Japan’s whaling programme.

In total, 1 paper has been published in peer-reviewed literature from a programme that has been running for more than 3 decades.


Norway actually rejected the 1986 moratorium, and continued its whaling trade. It made the contentious decision to increase its whaling quota to 1,278 in 2018, yet only managed to catch 432 whales in 2017. This is a telltale sign of a dying industry. Many would assume that Norway continues whaling due to some political reasons and long-standing traditions.


Iceland’s commercial whaling industry, like Norway’s, also acts in defiance of the IWC regulations, and continues to hunt Minke and the endangered Fin Whales. Iceland tends to sell the vast majority of its whale meat to Japan, where it is considered far more of a delicacy, but yet again the business is proving to be unprofitable. So why continue it? Well, it seems to come down to one man: Kristjan Loftsson, the son of the man who started Hvalur, the whaling company, who seems determined to keep the family business alive.

Countries Leading The Way

The Ramifications

Sometimes it is easy to forget that it isn’t just the act of whaling that threatens these grand mammals populations. Whaling is just part of the overall problem, as of course, we have climate change. Pollution of our oceans, habitat degradation and boat collisions, are all ways these mammals meet their untimely demise.

And Japans decision to leave the IWC could be seen as a route to resign for many other countries, such as South Korea, where there is an interest in consuming whale meat. And given that part of the work done by the IWC is to log the populations of whales killed each year, Japan leaving the IWC means they no longer have an obligation to report their whaling processes. This leads to far more inaccuracy in the data, and with no proper monitoring in place, could lead to many vulnerable populations being pushed to the verge of extinction.

There is also a major health risk from eating whale meat today, thanks to biomagnification. Many traditional Inuit communities will still hunt whales, but they must attain a quota from the IWC. This long-standing practice still forms a staple in many of these aboriginal tribes diets, and the Inuit’s refer to blubber as muktuk, and it put’s them at risk of high concentrations of chemical consumption. Our oceans are being polluted due to anthropogenic activities (human-related), and chemicals such as PCB, a toxic compound, is ending up in the water. Small animals will assimilate this toxin, and larger animals will consume the smaller ones, which increase the concentration of PCB as you move up the food chain. This process is called biomagnification, meaning the highest concentration of PCB will be found in the largest of marine animals: WHALES. So if people eat whale meat, they will be consuming meat that could have nasty toxins within it.


Whaling is still an important industry for many communities, and a sustainable answer will realistically have to involve compensation for loss of income in fishing communities. However, it has also been suggested that countries involved with commercial whaling can substitute it with tourism, and have whale watching voyages that could bring in a good source of income, more than likely exceeding that of commercial whaling; whilst shedding a positive light on the communities.

The whaling industry is continually losing money, as there isn’t a consumer demand for the meat anymore, even in Japan. The bad publicity the industry has been getting means it is no longer publicly accepted in Japan, and the industry actually has to rely on government subsidies to stay afloat. It doesn’t bode well for the industry, and you have to wonder how much longer the whaling trade can be propped up by government subsidies.

The whale watching industry has morphed itself into a $2.1 billion USD industry today. Tourists can watch from a pier or onboard a boat, and watch these animals in their natural habitat. Not only does this have huge economic benefits, but also scientists have been using the same tactic to study their migration patterns, social interactions and habitat.

Antarctic Ocean Whale Sanctuary is a 50 million square kilometer area where all types of commercial whaling are banned. And even Japan has stated they will now end their expeditions to these waters. The areas around the Southern Ocean have been ravaged by commercial whaling, and haven’t yet shown promising signs of recovery. But with a complete ban in the vast area of water, whale populations will hopefully make a splendid comeback in years to come.

It is still viewed, in a rather primitive way, that we must kill the whale in order to carry out scientific analysis. However, there are non-lethal ways of doing this, by doing a biopsy and removing a small piece of skin.

It seems like commercial whaling is stuck in the past, and the reason the industry survives today is more to do with political reasons and cultural ties. It was a highly profitable industry once, perhaps seen as a necessity for the advancement of human civilization, as many everyday items were created. Nevertheless, there will hopefully come a time where we can retire these beliefs and ideologies to give these wonderful creatures the best possible chance to survive and thrive.

Author Bio

Donald Eide is an E-commerce business owner. His company, Honey Gusto, specializes in the manufacturing of medical devices and healthcare products, and has a blog dedicated to it. However, he does have a passion for preservation of the environment and likes to write about it in his spare time, spreading knowledge and concerns with others. He holds a BSc. in Geology and an MSc. in Environmental Health:

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Clay Miller
the authorClay Miller
I am the creator/writer of and I'm an advocate for oceans, beaches, state parks. I enjoy all things outdoors (e.g. running, golf, gardening, hiking, etc.) I am a graduate of the University of Kentucky (Go Wildcats!!). I'm also a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I was born and raised in the beautiful state of Kentucky.

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