Will whales be hunted for profit in the future?

Commercial whaling is a complicated topic. Almost everybody has a strong opinion about it, and discussions can get heated quickly. So let’s take a deep breath and try to keep the blood pressure low. Nowadays, three countries openly conduct commercial whaling: Japan, Norway, and Iceland. Indigenous people in various parts of the world, e.g., Alaska and Greenland, and locals in the Faroe Islands also hunt whales. However, this is part of their subsistence economy and does not happen for commercial purposes. For this post, we will focus on commercial whaling. Instead of judging the populations of whaling nations, I want to give you an overview of each country’s situation and its implications for the future.

The history of commercial whaling

Whales have been hunted commercially for centuries, at least since 1100 A.D. when the Basques were whaling in the Bay of Biscay. Back then, hunting whales was difficult and dangerous. Injuries and death were prevalent; many vessels sank as well. Due to key technological advances in the second half of the 19th century, humans gained the upper hand. From the 1860s onwards, steam-powered whale catchers replaced the traditional rowing boats. These were not fast enough to catch speedy whale species like Fin and Sei whales. The arrival of these new steam vessels allowed whalers to go after previously unexploited whale species. Additionally, harpoon guns improved accuracy compared to hand-thrown harpoons. In 1903, the first factory ship was launched. Factory vessels allowed the processing of whales onboard instead of having to tow them to a land-based factory.

These developments in the industry allowed fleets to harvest whales in large numbers. Whales are long-lived animals with a low reproductive rate, so their numbers declined quickly. As soon as one species became less abundant, whalers turned their attention to the next smaller (or less fatty) species, and so on. In just 100 years, from 1900 to 1999, whalers killed about 2.9 million whales! This means that at least 66% and perhaps as much as 90% of the great whales populations disappeared.

A ban on commercial whaling

A global moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1986. It was a long and rocky road to get there. Members of the League of Nations warned as early as the 1920s that urgent international measures were needed to protect whales from extinction. Almost two decades later, the International Convention of the Regulation of Whaling was created in 1946 with the International Whaling Commission (IWC) as its governing body. As whale numbers kept declining, some species received global protection, for instance, the blue whale in 1966. Yet, it wasn’t until 1982 that the member states of the IWC were able to agree upon a ban on commercial whaling.

The world’s only operating whaler factory ship is the Nisshin Maru of the Japanese whaling fleet – Credit: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Wikipedia

Then how come that some countries are still hunting whales commercially? Now it gets a bit complicated. The whaling moratorium is not binding for all member states. Under the convention, nations had 90 days to register an objection. As a result, they are not bound by any decision of the IWC, including the moratorium. This is what Japan and Norway did. The Russian Federation has registered on objection as well, but it does not exercise it.

Iceland, on the other hand, did not officially object to the IWC moratorium but hunted a few dozen whales each year for a “scientific” whaling program until 1989. Three years later, Iceland left the IWC. When it rejoined in 2002, it took out reservations against the ban and resumed commercial whaling in 2006. Commercial whaling nowadays focuses on the common minke whale, the second smallest baleen whale species. Whalers used to target bigger species back in the whaling days. Therefore, the populations of minke whales never declined as much as those of other species. That’s why the hunt of minkes is often claimed to be “sustainable“.

The current situation in Iceland

Until recently, Iceland was hunting two whale species: The common minke whale and the fin whale. In early 2019, the annual quotas were 209 Fins and 217 Minkes until 2023. However, surprisingly, the Icelandic population does not eat much whale meat. So who eats whales?

Who eats whale meat?

Three recent surveys show that between less than 1% and 3.2% of the locals eat whale meat regularly (defined as six or more times/year in one of the surveys), while 81% have never tried it. At the same time, the number of tourists eating whale meat has gone up. Between 2012 and 2015, 18-20% of tourists said they had eaten whale meat which corresponds to around 215,100 steaks in 2016.

Whale meat is often advertised as something traditional to eat in Iceland. I heard local tour leaders advertising it during a bus tour. Of course some people get curious and want to give it a try. When I worked as a guide on whale watching tours in Reykavìk, passengers from various nations approached me to ask where they could go to eat a whale steak.

Ironically, the main whaling grounds for Minke whales were close to a sanctuary, including the main whale watching areas off the coast of Reykjavík. With more than 350,000 people going whale watching each year, Iceland is a great example of whales being worth far more alive than dead. Earlier this year, Iceland officially announced the end of the minke whaling operations.

Whale meat advertised to tourists on the main shopping street in Downtown Reykjavìk.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has campaigned for years against whaling in Iceland. Many “whale-friendly” restaurants that do not serve whale meat have this sticker at their doors. Next time you are in Iceland, you can encourage them by only eating at whale-friendly restaurants.

Fin whaling continues

Fin whales are not lucky yet. Since there is no domestic market for fin whale meat, it gets exported to Japan. In a survey from 2018, a third of Icelanders stated they oppose fin whaling. That’s an increase of 18% for whaling opposition in 2013. Additionally, in response to the new quotas in 2019, environmental organizations in Iceland sent an open letter to Parliament protesting the government’s decision. They argued that “whale meat is not an Icelandic tradition, but one acquired from the Norwegians a few decades ago”. Until the early 20th century, only foreign companies were hunting whales in Icelandic waters.

There is only one fin whaling company left now. Fin whale meat export become increasingly difficult in the last few years due to troubles with port authorities, shipping lines refusing to transport whale meat, and stricter requirements for the import by Japan. In 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020, no fin whales were hunted. Overall, it seems that the end of fin whaling in Iceland is coming sooner rather than later. Many of us are looking forward to that day, including people from Iceland.

Let’s have a look at Norway

Norwegians were the major players in industrial whaling, taking over half of all whales killed by the mid-1930s. Nowadays, demand is relatively low. The local market for whale meat had been declining for many years. In September this year, however, the demand went up. An increase in domestic tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic and interest in local cuisine interest are two possible explanations to this increase. In contrast to Iceland, about 80% of Norwegians have eaten whale meat but only a minority of less than 5% eats it more than once per month. Younger generations are barely interested in whale meat. In the age group 18-29, 75% have never eaten it or did so only a long time ago.

Whaling vessel in Norway – Credit: Ronald Smit

Catches increased in 2020…

In response to the growing demand, the number of minke whales caught went up this year (481 in 2020 versus 429 in 2019). Norway’s Minister of Fisheries recently loosened the requirements for whalers, in order to increase the number of vessels and the catches. For instance, only one crew member on board needs to have previous whaling experience. Other efforts include subsidized campaigns to advertise whale meat to younger generations and whale meat offered to school children. Understandably, various animal welfare organizations have raised concerns about these amendments.

Tourists are also a target for the whaling lobbies. Even though (to my knowledge) surveys similar to Iceland haven’t been done in Norway, tourists seem to play a significant role in the demand for whale meat. Whale meat has been used as pet food and animal feed on fur farms. Overall, there still is relatively little demand for whale meat by the locals in Norway. Nowadays, Norway exports its whale meat to Japan as well. But hopefully the demand will go down in the near future.

The most complicated case: Japan

Japan resumed commercial whaling in July 2019 after the nation’s withdrawal from the IWC became official. Wait, just last year? Yes – until 2018/19, Japan was exploiting a loophole in the convention. To do so, it gave itself permits for “scientific” whaling. Japan has hunted Antarctic minke whales in the Southern Ocean since 1987; common minkes, Bryde’, sei whales as well as fin and sperm whales in the Northwest Pacific since 1994; and common minke whales in its coastal waters since 2002. The meat and blubber of the whales hunted for science, though, are being sold commercially.

In the media, you probably heard most about the whaling program targeting Antarctic minke whales (under the JARPA and JARPA II programs). One reason it got so much attention is the fact that the whaling took place in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary established by the IWC in 1994. In 2010, the Australian Government initiated formal proceedings against Japan at the International Court of Justice. After four long years, the court decided that “the evidence does not establish that the program’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives”. The court’s judgment was legally binding but allowed Japan to revamp its program to meet the requirements for scientific whaling. After an intermission during the following Antarctic season, a new whaling program started in 2015/16 (NEWREP-A).

Why did Japan leave the IWC and what does it mean for the whales?

Japan had openly demanded the resumption of commercial whaling for years. Eventually, at the 67th biannual meeting of the IWC in Brazil in September 2018, Japan asked for catch limits for certain whale species. This would have effectively overturned the moratorium on commercial whaling. With 41 votes in opposition, the required three-fourths majority was not achieved, and the proposal was rejected. As a result, Japan announced its withdrawal from the IWC the following December, which became effective in July 2019. Japan argued that “it is impossible in the IWC to seek the coexistence of states with different views”.

There are different opinions about Japan’s decision. It may have been a face-saving step to bring the whaling program in Antarctica to an end after such a long time. Similarly, others believe it might even be a strategy to recede from whaling altogether by setting lower and lower quotas from now on. Considering Japan’s steadily growing whale-watching industry, it would be reasonable. On the other hand, there are fears that this move might set an example for other pro-whaling countries such as Russia and South Korea. Japan’s whaling activities are now limited to Japan’s coast and its 200-mile (323-km) exclusive economic zone. For 2019, Japan set a self-allocated quota of 232 whales, made up of 187 Bryde’s whales, 20 common minke whales, and 25 sei whales. However, they”only” caught 223 whales.

Understanding Japan, and the history of whale meat

Japanese coastal communities have hunted whales along their shores on a small scale since the 12th century. To understand today’s situation regarding whale meat, we need to look at World War II and the post-war period. During that time, food shortages led to Japan hunting whales at a larger scale, urged by the American occupation authorities. The meat of whales caught in the Southern Ocean became the main source of meat for the population. Back then, children were eating whale meat at school and grew up with whale meat as a normal part of their diet. That’s how whales became “entangled in state policies”. This history might be why the Government was holding on to Antarctica’s whaling program for so long. Nonetheless, as the Japanese economy recovered, the demand for whale meat started to plummet. It has remained on a very low level since the late 1980s.

Is international pressure helpful?

In a street survey from 2018, 67% of respondents had no interest in eating whale meat. The remaining 33% belonged to older generations who had eaten whale growing up. About 70% of the population is pro-whaling, though. These numbers are a good reflection of the situation in Japan: It’s not about the people wanting to eat whale meat. It is a matter of national pride and has been framed by its Japanese supporters as racial prejudice and discrimination by Western countries. Consequently, international pressure might do more harm than good.

Even though whale meat isn’t popular, it might stoke up nationalist sentiments and even lead to an increase in demand. These circumstances won’t change from one day to the next. However, after such a long time, it’s unlikely that whale meat will become popular again. The lack of demand and the need for heavy subsidies are hopeful signs in favor of the whales. And a step back from international criticism might actually be the best thing to do now…

Minke whales in Iceland – Credit: Ronald Smit

Take-Home Message

Of course, there is a lot more to tell about each of these countries’ situations that it is impossible to cover in a summary like this. But I hope I was able to give you an overview of the situation regarding commercial whaling. So what’s the take-home message from all this? I would like you to remember that there is hardly any demand for whale meat by the local population in any of these countries.

Even if there is still (some) support for whaling in general, I hope to break down our prejudices against them. Plus, we can inform friends and family if they plan to visit Iceland or Norway and suggest making their trips without whale meat. This way, we can all do our part in keeping the demand as low as possible. And hopefully, there won’t be any commercial whaling in the not-too-distant future.

Sources and further reading

Thank you for reading! Do not hesitate to respectfully tell us your opinion, in the comments section.

You can find out more about the Sei Whale, still hunted by Japan, here:

The Sei Whale – November 2020
Hanna Michel
Biologist, Guide, Lecturer | hanna.michel.mb@gmail.com

Hanna is a biologist from Germany with focus on marine mammals. During her university days she was involved in research projects in Italy, Australia and also Iceland. This is where she has spent most of her time since receiving her Master’s degree. Here she has been working as a naturalist for whale watching companies in different parts of the country. Since starting to work as a guide and lecturer on polar expedition cruises in 2017, she has been migrating between Iceland and Antarctica sharing her passion for cetaceans and seals.

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