Whaling is an environmental issue that produces heated debate between countries and individuals. Countries like Japan and Norway value whaling for the commercial products it produces, and because it represents a cultural aspect of their heritage. As whaling became an increasing hot topic, groups like the International Whaling Commission (IWC) were created, and restrictive legislation was introduced which put controls in place to protect the whales (Ivashchenko & Clapham, 2014, p. 3). Ivashchenko and Clapham list some of the restrictions, which included “catch limits, defined whaling seasons and areas, and prohibitions on the taking of animals of certain lengths, species, or classes” (2014, p. 3). Japan and Norway were vocal opponents of these new rules, and despite them, both countries were able to devise ways to continue whaling while skirting the edges of legality (Plant, 2015, p. 42; “Commercial Whaling,” n.d., para. 3). The whaling industry has devastated whale populations and the vast, but delicate, ecosystem of the ocean by ignoring restrictions that were put in place to ensure the sustainability of the whales and their habitat.
The (IWC) is responsible for regulating the taking of whales for commercial or subsistence purposes on an international level. It identifies three main types of whaling: aboriginal subsistence whaling to support the needs of indigenous communities, commercial whaling, and scientific whaling (“Whaling,” n.d., para. 2). Of the three, aboriginal subsistence whaling has the least harmful impact. This type of whaling “does not seek to maximize catches or profit” (“Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling,” n.d., para. 2). The IWC sets limits on the number and type of whales that can be killed. Unfortunately, the IWC operates only in an advisory capacity and there are loopholes available to those who wish to exploit the rules for their own gain (“Whaling,” n.d., para.3).
Japan and Norway are two notable countries that use loopholes within the regulations of the International Whaling Commission so that they can continue their commercial whaling with little to no actual limitations. Japanese whalers obtained a special permit allowing for the killing of whales for the purposes of scientific research, despite “produc[ing] no evidence that [they] had studied the feasibility of non-lethal alternatives” and showing no concern for ensuring that the scale of the research was justifiable (Plant, 2015, p. 42). This thinly disguised maneuver by Japanese whalers seems almost considerate in comparison to Norway’s solution, which was little more than a flat-out refusal to comply with the IWC whaling regulations, and resulted in Norwegian whalers being allowed to continue their practices “under objection to the moratorium decision” (“Commercial Whaling,” n.d., para. 3). For these two countries, the commercial and cultural value of whale products outweighs any consideration for the overall ecological health of the ocean. Even if the ecological harm inflicted by whaling is disregarded, this is still a short-sighted stance by Japan and Norway, since it is in the best interests of both countries to ensure their whaling practices are sustainable so that they can continue to profit.
These ongoing commercial whaling activities make it nearly impossible for whale populations to recover from the massive death tolls inflicted during the 1960s where over 400,000 whales were killed (Rocha, Clapham & Ivashchenko, 2014, p.41). In addition to the direct killing of whales, Reiser notes the following consequences of continued human interference:
These impacts reduce the amount of habitation suitable for whales to live in, challenging their ability to recover from the factory-whaling era. For example, shipping noise in the ocean increases exponentially with each decade, degrading the underwater acoustic environment whales depend on for communicating and locating prey . . . The number of cetaceans that die or are weakened by these forms of habitat degradation vastly outnumber the number of whales deliberately killed by whaling. (2015, p. 405).
Even if the set quotas of whale kills are conscientiously adhered to, it is impossible to definitively estimate the number of whales that are killed incidentally. Without an accurate assessment of the number of whales being killed through direct or indirect means, regulatory groups cannot set forth precise quotas. Without precise regulations, the side effects of whaling will continue to decimate the whale populations through direct means and through the destruction of their habitats.
Some of the more sought-after species of whales, like the sperm whale, the right whale, and the bowhead whale, were hunted to extremes (Ivashchenko & Clapham, 2014, pp. 5-6). For the sperm whale, Ivashchenko and Clapham note that “much of the prime reproductive part of the population” was removed, “thus further inhibiting recovery” (2014, p. 6). Even if whalers refrain from killing any more sperm whales, it may already be too late for their species to repopulate. The current status of the right whale is even more dismal than that of the sperm whale. It is estimated that only 30 right whales still inhabit their North Pacific territory (Ivashchenko & Clapham, 2014, p. 6). On the positive side, there are some whale species that are showing improved numbers now that the majority of commercial whaling has come to an end. For instance, the humpback whale, which has been a protected species since the 1960s, has shown “annual increase[d] rates of about 10%” and blue whales have an annual increase in population of about 8% (“Status of Whales,” n.d., paras. 8, 11). Interestingly, the data provided by the IWC in “Status of Whales” indicates that the larger species of whales have the most heavily reduced numbers, and the smaller species of whales have an overall higher total, but are still noticeably lower than in years before commercial whaling became prominent. After hunting the larger whales to scarcity, whalers then turned their focus on smaller whales.
Centuries of commercial whaling have depleted many whale populations, which in turn have upset the delicate ecosystem and food chain of the ocean. The food chain is called a chain because each type of plant and animal within the chain is an essential interconnected link. A species’ population cannot be drastically reduced or completely eradicated without consequences, and the consequences of whaling are myriad. Whales are predators, and removing predators from an environment invariably results in a population increase of those predators’ prey. In this case, the population of krill increased dramatically, which in turn caused the populations of other smaller krill predators like seals and penguins to increase dramatically (Surma, Pakhomov, & Pitcher, 2014, p. 21). This type of domino effect where the state of one animal directly impacts the state of another is problematic because it is not always possible to predict how those impacts will manifest. It is possible that the increased number of penguins and seals will balance out the surplus of krill and the food chain will be stabilized, or it could result in an unexpected reaction further up or down the food chain.
Whales have long captured the interest of the public. Their awe-inspiring size, well-known intelligence, and seemingly contradictory gentle nature have made whales a favorite among animal and environmental rights groups. They are “a symbol of humanity’s relationship to the oceans” (Rieser, 2009, p. 401). Unfortunately, due to the mishandling of commercial whaling, this symbol is a negative representation of humanity’s connection to the ocean. For there to be any hope of whale populations recovering from commercial whaling, and with them the ocean’s fragile ecosystem, more must be done to stop countries like Japan and Norway from flouting the regulations of the International Whaling Commission.
International Whaling Commission. (n.d.-d). “Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling.” Retrieved from https://iwc.int/aboriginal.
International Whaling Commission. (n.d.-a). “Commercial Whaling.” Retrieved from https://iwc.int/commercial.
International Whaling Commission. (n.d.-c). “Status of Whales.” Retrieved from https://iwc.int/status.
International Whaling Commission. (n.d.-b). “Whaling.” Retrieved from https://iwc.int/whaling.
Ivashchenko, Y.V. and Clapham, P.J. (2014). “Too Much Is Never Enough: The Cautionary Tale of Soviet Illegal Whaling.” Marine Fisheries Review, 76(1/2), 1-21. doi:10.7755/MFR.76.1_2.1
Plant, B. (2015). “Sovereignty, Science, and Cetaceans: The Whaling in the Antarctic Case.” Cambridge Law Journal, 74(1), 40-44. doi:10.1017/S0008197315000227
Rieser, A. (2009). “Whales, Whaling, and the Warming Oceans.” Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, 36(2), 401-429.
Rocha, R. C., Clapham, P.J., and Ivashchenko, Y.V. (2014). “Emptying the Oceans: A Summary of Industrial Whaling Catches in the 20th Century.” Marine Fisheries Review, 76(4), 37-48. doi:10.7755/MFR.76.4.3
Surma, S., Pakhomov, E. A., and Pitcher, T. J. (2014). “Effects of Whaling on the Structure of the Southern Ocean Food Web: Insights on the ‘Krill Surplus’ from Ecosystem Modelling.” Plos One, 9(12), 1-21. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0114978