How Whaling Works

Early whalers used spears to take down whales, as represented in this 1820 engraving. See more pictures of marine mammals.
Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Few issues get people more riled up than politics, religion or sports. But the longstanding clash that's evolved over the years about the right to hunt and kill whales -- or the right to stop those who do -- comes close.

Men have been hunting and killing whales, or whaling, for centuries. Early whalers started hunting for survival, but their motivation may have changed once there was good money to be made from their catches. Those days are gone.


Whaling for profit has been banned since 1986, but whaling for scientific research is still allowed in certain areas. This exception incites strong opposition among anti-whaling groups, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Greenpeace USA. The organizations accuse countries such as Japan of skirting a global law that has prohibited commercial whaling for more than two decades. In addition, conservationists say whaling is the reason that some whale populations have reached the brink of extinction and have had trouble regaining their numbers.

This article will take a look at the history and evolution of whaling, the impact it has had on the species and the ongoing battle to enforce the International Whaling Commission's (IWC's) ban on commercial whaling.

Now let's take a look at why whales -- the world's largest mammals -- were hunted in the first place.

Why Do We Hunt Whales?

Early man hunted whales because their meat and blubber were able to fulfill his basic survival needs. For thousands of years, the climate was too cold for many people, including the Eskimos and the indigenous people living in Greenland, to grow their own vegetables. Whale meat became breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whale blubber provided energy and vitamins A, C and D, and whale meat is rich in niacin, iron and protein [source: Tevuk]. Every part of the mammal was eaten or used to light lamps and make tools and sleds.

Consuming whale meat has also been woven into Japan's history and culture. Whale meat became a crucial part of the Japanese food supply after World War II, because it was a cheap source of protein for a country that was suffering from postwar poverty. This delicacy was even served to children in school lunches from the late 1940s to the early 1960s [source: McCurry]. However, today's Japanese youngsters aren't keen on eating whale meat just because their elders did. A Greenpeace poll conducted in the summer of 2006 by the Nippon Research Centre revealed that 95 percent of Japanese people say they never or rarely eat whale meat.


The mammal's oil also motivated whalers. Whale oil lit lamps and formed candle wax. It also found a place in margarine and other products, like additives in motor oils, automatic transmission fluids, cosmetics, perfumes, detergents and vitamins [source: Pees]. This plentiful oil allowed the commercial whaling industry to grow quickly. An average-size sperm whale could produce approximately 25 to 40 barrels of whale oil [source: Pees]. Whale oil fueled the economic growth of many nations, including the United States, Great Britain, Germany and Norway.

People in these areas don't depend on whale oil anymore, because petroleum eventually took its place as a fuel mainstay. Still, whaling continues despite a commercial ban imposed by the IWC, the body formed in 1946 to monitor the fate of whales. However, Japan is allowed to hunt whales annually under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. The Japanese government says it's studying whale populations. Activist groups accuse the Japanese of hunting whales to sell the meat in their country.

Norway objected to the commercial whaling moratorium and filed an objection with the IWC. At the time, they imposed a quota of minke whales they are allowed to kill each year; however, they often fall short of meeting that number. Iceland also objects to being pressured by other countries to cease whaling. They say stopping the practice will put too many of their people out of work [source: Chaon].

On the next page, we'll take a chronological look at the industry of commercial whaling.

The History of Commercial Whaling

A Baird's beaked whale is prepared for processing at Wado Port in Minamiboso, Chiba, Japan in 2009.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

The basic rules of supply and demand were never more present than in whaling. The more people needed oil, the more money the whalers made. The more money the whalers made, the more whales they hunted. Pretty simple. Many countries wanted in on the action.

The Basques, an ethnic group originating in northwest Spain and southwest France, conducted the first official commercial whaling operation. As early as 1,000 A.D., they hunted northern right whales in the Bay of Biscay region, located along the western coast of France and the northern coast of Spain. Other countries soon followed suit. England started hunting bowhead whales around the North American colonies in 1611, and Japan started whaling in 1675. The Americans began running whaling operations out of Nantucket, Mass., in 1712 [source: Kline].


Early whalers specifically hunted sperm whales because they carried a lot of whale oil. They also couldn't catch whales like the blue, sei and fin whales, because the animals were too big and could out-swim ships.

Norwegian whaling pioneer, Svend Foyn, changed the game when he launched the Spes et Fides, the first steam-powered whaling ship, in 1863. Five years later, Foyn created the harpoon cannon. Both innovations allowed whalers to go after the bigger kills. Indigenous people killed whales by throwing harpoons at them; Foyn turned the kills up a notch with his harpoon cannon, which was basically a gun that fired a heavy harpoon rigged with explosives that went off inside the whale.

The newer technology allowed more people to get into the whaling business with high-paying jobs. In 1857, 329 whaling vessels in the New Bedford, Mass., fleet employed about 10,000 men, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service.

The hunt didn't come without danger or complications. Hunting whales on cold, treacherous waters cost many men their lives, but the money made the risk worth taking. Whale boats could be destroyed easily by these huge creatures as they thrashed violently around the sea waves after being harpooned. Whalers were also susceptible to falling overboard and drowning, or even contracting dangerous diseases like tuberculosis, yellow fever and malaria while docking at different ports.

Today, whales don't have to be taken back to ports, because they are processed at sea on whaling ships. The harpoon cannon allows the whale to be killed quickly, and if the animal doesn't die right away, the hunters shoot it.

Now let's take a look at the impact this industry has had on the whales themselves.

The Depletion of Whale Populations

Workers begin to dissect the carcass of a whale caught in Antarctica in 1935.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The beginning of the 20th century marked the beginning of rapidly reduced numbers of whales. Whalers seemed to believe that the ocean was filled with limitless supplies of different species. In 1904, Carl Anton Larsen, of Norway, started the first Antarctic whaling operation in the South Atlantic island of South Georgia. It didn't take long for the numbers of whales killed to increase:

  • 1904 - 184 whales were killed in the South Atlantic island of South Georgia. Within 10 years, 1,738 blue whales, 4,776 fin whales and 21,894 humpback whales were killed in that area.
  • 1927 - 13,775 whales were killed in the Antarctic during the whaling season.
  • 1929 - That number nearly tripled to 40,201.
  • 1931 - 37,438 blue whales were killed in the Southern Oceans.
  • 1937 - More than 45,000 whales were killed in the Antarctic. This is the highest total ever.

[source: Kline]


When the whale population dropped in a particular area, whalers moved to other regions in search of more species. The dwindling numbers of North Pacific right whales and North Pacific gray whales, as well as bowheads and northern right whales in the North Atlantic, forced whalers to travel to find more. They searched for whales in the North Atlantic Polar Region, the Caribbean, the Southern Ocean and the South Pacific [source: Kline]. But the vast majority of whaling took place in the Antarctic.

In 1925, the British built the first whaling "factory ships." Men could process whales right there on the ships and live on the water for months at a time. These new ships also provided whalers great cover. Since they were in open water and not in a specific country, they didn't have to abide by any rules prohibiting them from catching certain sizes or species of whales.

The possibility of extinction forced countries to take notice. Too many whales were dying, and people were getting worried. Sixty years after the first factory ships were introduced, more than 2 million whales had been killed in the Southern Hemisphere [source: Clapham and Baker]. All nations agreed that something needed to be done before an entire population of whales was wiped out. Let's take a look at how countries pulled together to address this issue.

The Fight to Regulate Commercial Whaling

A Japanese crew member shoots a harpoon at a whale in the Antarctic during a scientific research mission.
M. Votier/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As countries -- even whaling countries -- grew increasingly concerned about the effects of commercial whaling, it was time to take action. The League of Nations put together the Geneva Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. In 1931, 26 countries, including Norway, Great Britain and the United States, signed the convention to prevent whale extinction. The purpose was clear: to make decisions on the whaling industry.

Not everybody was on board. Germany, Japan and Russia refused to sign the agreement. Other countries felt the convention didn't go far enough -- it was like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. But it was a start.


In 1936, the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling was signed in London. This agreement set whaling seasons in the Antarctic and banned whalers from hunting certain endangered species. Once again, Japan refused to abide by this agreement. During the next whaling season, 46,039 whales were killed in the Antarctic -- the highest total ever [source: Kline].

The early agreements weren't working, so the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling formed the IWC in 1946. This commission was basically tasked with determining the fate of whales. It prevented whalers from hunting gray and right whales, developed quotas for the numbers of whales various countries could kill, and designated areas and times of the year when whalers could hunt. But making rules was a lot easier than enforcing them. Too many whales were still being killed.

In 1982, the IWC voted to ban commercial whaling beginning in 1986. Once again, it was rejected by Japan, Norway and Russia. Russia, however, did eventually get out of the whaling business [source: Clapham and Baker]. Kline, the Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace USA, calls the commercial moratorium on whaling, "one of the greatest environmental achievements of the 21st century." He says its huge success relies on the fact that there's more international outrage to keep the pressure on Japan, Norway and Iceland. "When people find out what their own country is doing, they don't like it," he added [source: Kline].

Eight years after the moratorium began, the IWC established the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary -- the water that surrounds Antarctica -- where whales cannot be killed. However, that hasn't stopped Iceland, Japan and Norway from hunting whales there. Many accuse Japan of circumventing the rule by hunting whales inside the sanctuary under the guise of scientific research -- a provision allowed by the IWC -- and culture.

Norway and Iceland refuse to abide by the moratorium. Activists argue that too many whales are still dying. In fact, the World Wildlife Federation estimates that more than 31,000 whales have been killed since the IWC banned commercial whaling 24 years ago. The next page shows us that the fight to stop whaling continues even today.

The Future of Whaling

The Ady Gil, Sea Shepherd's stealth anti-whaling boat, was made to approach whaling vessels almost unseen.
Phil Walter/Getty Images

As long as there are still whaling ships in the open waters, there will be groups out there attempting to stop them. Anti-whaling activists and organizations don't like the fact that Iceland, Japan and Norway still continue to hunt the sea creatures. The Japanese don't want to be told what to do about a tradition they say is deeply rooted in culture and tradition. Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda of the House of Councilors insists that his country is not violating any rule under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling [source: McDonald].

Non-whaling countries disagree, and at times, the fight gets heated. Every winter, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society endures freezing temperatures and roaring waves as they head out to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary to confront Japanese ships. In January 2010, a Sea Shepherd boat and a Japanese whaler collided into one another. The Sea Shepherd crew accused the Japanese of intentionally running their boat, the Shonan Maru No. 2, into the Sea Shepherd's boat, the Ady Gil. The aftershock of the collision didn't stop after the Ady Gil sunk. Sea Shepherd crewman and anti-whaling activist, Pete Bethune, boarded the Shonan Maru No. 2 and threatened to make a citizen's arrest. He was eventually arrested in Tokyo, given a suspended sentence and released and banned from the country [source: McDonald].


Not everyone in Japan wants to continue the country's tradition. Even pro-whalers in Japan concede there is a challenge convincing the younger generation to support whaling: This generation does not view whales as a food source, but as creatures that need to be protected [source: Faiola]. They share the sentiment of the anti-whaling countries of the IWC.

IWC members met in Agadir, Morocco, in June 2010 to discuss the fate of the commercial ban. The three whaling countries wanted to lift the ban on commercial whaling. In return, they would have agreed to reduce the numbers of whales they kill. However, the majority of the IWC nations wouldn't go along with a proposal allowing commercial whaling to be legalized again. So commercial whaling is still forbidden -- for now.

The issue is far from settled. As long as whaling nations are allowed to hunt whales, they will continue the practice. But nipping at their heels are the anti-whalers who vow to continue to fight to ensure that whales will never again be hunted and killed for man's financial gain. For more information on whales and other water mammals, follow the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Anti-whaling Boat Sinks in America." Jan. 1, 2010. (July 29, 2010)
  • "Australia to Mount Legal Bid Against Japan Whaling." May 28, 2010. (Aug. 18, 2010)
  • Chaon, Anne. "For Iceland's Whaling King, They're 'Just Another Fish.'" June 23, 2010. (Aug. 18, 2010)
  • Clapham, P.J. and Baker, C.S. "Modern Whaling." Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. 2002. (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • Cole, Matt. "Iceland and EU Battle Over Whaling Plans." Aug. 10, 2010. (Aug. 18, 2010)
  • Conger, Cristen. "How Sea Shepherd Works." (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Whaling" and "International Whaling Commission." (Aug. 1, 2010)
  • Faiola, Anthony. "Reviving a Taste for Whale." The Washington Post. June 19, 2005.
  • Gelineau, Kristen. "Whaling Research Mission to Begin." Jan. 31, 2010. (Aug. 18, 2010).
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  • IMBD. "Orca." (accessed: July 29, 2010)
  • International Whaling Commission Web site. (July 25, 2010)
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  • Kline, Phil. Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace USA. Personal Interview. Aug. 2, 2010.
  • Kline, Phil. "Whaling Timeline." Greenpeace document provided by Phil Kline, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace USA.
  • McCurry, Justin. "Japan's Whaling Meat Obsession." April 8, 2010. (July 29, 2010)
  • McDonald, Phillippa. "Deported Activist Blasts NZ Whaling Stance." July 12, 2010. (July 29, 2010)
  • New Bedford Whaling, National Park Service, the Department of the Interior. "The Seaman's Bethel." (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • Nippon Research Centre Whaling Poll. June 1, 2006.
  • Palmer, Brian. "What Does Whale Taste Like? Plus, are There Different Cuts of Whale, like Beef? Or is all the Same, like Fish?" March, 11, 2010. (July 29, 2010)
  • Pees, Samuel T. "Oil History." (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • Tevuk, Demarus. "Whaling Rights in Alaska." (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • "Whales Killed by Whaling Since Moratorium." World Wildlife Federation. (July 29, 2010),+WWF,+Whaling+Facts+and+Figures&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a
  • "Why Greenpeace Won't Compromise on Commercial Whaling." June 21, 2010. (July 29, 2010)