Whales are the largest and among the most charismatic of all marine species. Relentless hunting in the 19th and 20th centuries devastated populations of many whales, driving a number of them to the brink of extinction. Recovery for many populations still remains uncertain. In 1982, after several failed attempts to bring whaling under control, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) finally adopted a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling which took effect in 1986.
Unfortunately, the moratorium did not end the killing of whales. Today, Japan, Iceland and Norway continue to hunt whales through ambiguities in the IWC’s rules, including one that allows for “scientific” whaling—killing whales for scientific research and then marketing the meat just as in a commercial operation. More than 30,000 whales have been killed since the moratorium began, including endangered and vulnerable species such as fin and sei whales.
In 1994, the IWC declared a whale sanctuary in the waters around Antarctica, the summer feeding grounds of 80 to 90 percent of the world’s remaining whales. Since then, however, Japan has used a loophole in the international whaling convention to establish a highly subsidized “scientific research” whaling program in the sanctuary. Year after year, Japan has also increased the numbers of whales killed and species targeted, selling the meat at fish markets and trying to introduce it into school lunch programs. The exploitation of the scientific whaling loophole, coupled with a political impasse within the IWC, has undermined the Commission’s authority and effectiveness.
In addition to commercial whaling, these great creatures face a wide range of threats in our oceans, including entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, noise pollution and climate change. The Pew Charitable Trusts' Global Whale Conservation Project worked with governments, nongovernmental organizations, scientists and individuals to move past the impasse within the IWC and close the loopholes that allow Japan, Norway and Iceland to continue whaling. It also promoted well-regulated whale-watching, the creation of protected areas and sanctuaries and the development of measures to tackle the many threats facing whales in the 21st century in an attempt to transform the IWC’s mission from one where it regulated whaling to one where whale conservation was its core business.