A Legacy of Cetacide: A Brief Overview of Humankind’s Commercial Whaling History

Published by EEZ Technology Magasine, 1998 United Kingdom

By A. Michael Kundu, Director, Project SeaWolf

The commercial exploitation of the world’s great cetaceans is arguably one of humankind’s greatest conservation failures. In few other areas can we claim such tragic efficiency as consumers of the earths’ resources.

Escalating into epidemic proportion in the mid-1800’s, commercial harvesting of various stocks of whales has managed to devastate most large whale populations, while virtually eliminating many others. It is estimated that combined efforts by most indusrtial nations have removed over 80% of the worlds’ large whales from their rightful home in the open seas. Whales are mong the slowest mammalian pecies to recover from overhunting; even today, species such as the Right, Bowhead and Humpback whales, among many other species, are still at only a fraction of their original population numbers.

Indigenous whale hunting has gone on since time immorial, but the largest advancement in killing came around 1864, when the cannon-propelled, exploding harpoon was invented. For the next few decades, thousands of whales were killed, most by the leading industrial nations, which came to consider whale oil as an easily acquired and bountiful commodity. Then in 1922, the first factory whaling vessel was introduced, allowing whaling operations to operate longer in the open seas, and become far more devastatingly effective in their slaughter.

At that time, hundreds of thousands of whales died, and by the middle 1900s, stocks of animals became harder to locate, signaling that a drastic change was happening in the open oceans. In 1946, the proponant nations of this cetacide formed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), an international cooperative agency which would attempt to regulate the killing of whales to prevent their utter extinction in most areas of the world.

Over the next two decades, various management schemes and regulatory efforts were tabled in an effort to protect collapsing whale stocks, while still allowing a reasonable harvest of these magnificent animals. Most conservation efforts failed, primariliy because the hunting of whales in most member countries was unregulated at best and flagrantly violated at worst. One of the most diligent of the ‘pirate whaling’ operations in the 1950s, was

In 1982, the successor body of the ICRW, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) responded to the imminent threat of extinction of many whale species by declaring a global moratorium on the commercial hunting of whales. This ban went into practical effect in 1986.

Today, the IWC has 39 signatory nations, but since the organisation has never actually "enforced" its regulations, member nations are largely left to be self-policing in regulating domestic whaling activities. Non-member nations (notably Canada, which in 1996 permitted the killing of two highly endangered Hudsons Bay/Foxe Basin Bowhead whales) continue to make cavalier domestic whaling decisions with potentially enormous impacts on the conservation efforts of signatory members. When IWC signatory nations were given the opportunity to reprimand Canada for this action, the IWC faltered.

No doubt, our global legacy of whale hunting is one which we should be terribly ashamed of; and in light of the renaissance of new whaling activities in many regions, it is a legacy which all nations must now work collectively to prevent from re-emerging.

the protection of frequently killed small dolphin species and, as of late, the IWC has only been marginally effective in protecting the larger whale species.

Re-Emergence of "Pirate" Whaling Operations
Over the past decades, in the lack of international enforcement, pirate whaling operations have become more prevalent. The demand for whale meat stems primarily from Asian markets, with Japan and Korea being the main destination for most operations.

Mostly to supply the black market trade for whale meat in Japan, the South Pacific is seen as a hotbed of illegal whaling. Areas of concern include Lamalera, a village on the Indonesian island of Lembata, where islanders traditionally killed Sperm whales, and in Ombai Strait, a Sperm whale breeding ground which was hunted heavily by Japanese and Taiwanese prior to 1970. These locations may be a prime staging centers for current pirate operations by organized groups or villagers from these countries.

And on the Atlantic side, in July of 1997, reports from Portugal announced the discovery of at least 20 dead Sperm whales, each attached to marker buoys and apparently awaiting retrieval by some unknown seagoing processing vessel. Still being investigated, the base of current activities is assumed by groups like Sea Shepherd to be somewhere within the Canary Islands.

In 1993, 232 tons of whale meat destined to Japan was seized in Taiwan. That shipment was redirected through Russia. In 1988, 5.4 kilograms of Minke whale flesh was discovered in Hong Kong, while additional sources of Minke meat are known to be available in Korea (where Fin and Sei, among other whales, were butchered openly at Chaingsangpo Harbor in 1985) and other Oriental markets.

Recent DNA fingerprinting tests conducted by Baker & Palumbi have identified much of the whale meat found in Oriental markets to be of species such as Blue, Minke, Fin, Sei and dozens of other species, most of which are prohibited from being hunted. Meat from these internationally protected species has been discovered being sold in Japan and South Korea. Criminal syndicates in Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Russia are the suspected sources of this illegal whale meat trade in the North Pacific.

Additionally, in the high Arctic, pirate whaling exists in abundance. The Norwegian whaling industry, which has flagrantly increasing its illegal, self-designated Minke whale quota since 1992, is the most prolific "pirate whaling nation." Attempts by Norwegian businessmen, including current member of Norwegian Parliament Steiner Bastensen, to smuggle whale meat to Japanese markets have been well documented. In April 1996, smugglers reached Japan with 6 tons – part of a 60-ton shipment labeled as "mackerel" was confiscated by officials of that country. Steiner Bastensen, at that time a prominent leader of the Norwegian Whaling Industry, was arrested in his attempts to move whale meat between the two countries illegally.

Pirate whaling operations supply a demand created by a handful of nations. As long as this demand exists, and in the light of a lack of international enforcement, whales will continue to be hunted illegally.

Whaling Conclusion
Today, most independent researchers will admit that we are inadequately equipped with information of whale population numbers and recovery to calculate how many animals can be safely harvested from individual stock. Even on recovering populations, new, unpredictable threats loom that can rebound the species toward extirpation of extinction again. In the Eastern Pacific, the only remaining population of Gray whales has been determined to be near pre-exploitation numbers, but industrial developments at their largest breeding grounds will significantly impact the reproduction rate of that species in the coming decade.

Most profoundly perhaps, global societies are taking more of an offense to the killing of whales. Even in the whaling nations, Japan and Norway most prevalently, movements to terminate whaling activities are growing exponentially. Since political decisions are often based on public opinions, industries such as whaling that have no moral justification are being put under increased pressure. More and more from a social perspective, it is becoming far too expensive for a nation to kill whales.

While pro-whaling nations have placed their arguments primarily on the acceptance of "indigenous, or traditional aboriginal whale hunting," a criticism is that the number of aboriginally harvested whales are impossible to monitor, and that indigenously harvested whales are among the most prone to inhumane killing methodologies. And contrary to regular reports, most alledged subsistence-based whaling communities are frequently served by a number of alternative food sources, even in locations as distant as Barrow, Alaska or Eulen, Russia.

Even with the prevalence of current trends, conservationists are convinced that there will come a time when whaling will disappear completely. Aboriginal groups previously dependent on whale products will find new sources of non-consumptive subsistence, perhaps derived from a growing trend toward eco-tourism.

At that time, countries which hesitated or objected the most in ending the exploitation of cetaceans will undoubtedly bear the punitive stigma of being, at best, environmentally complacent, and at worst, cavalier renegades who fought against international marine mammal conservation efforts.


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Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf

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