Updated: Jul 16
Whales are some of the largest, and most important, creatures on planet Earth. Believe it or not, whales are responsible for helping us combat our excessive CO2 emissions. Phytoplankton are microscopic plant-like organisms that live at the ocean’s surface. Similar to plants on land, phytoplankton use the process of photosynthesis to survive. Organisms that photosynthesize require sunlight, water, CO2, and nutrients such as iron and phosphate to do so. Plants on land are able to take root in the ground to absorb their nutrients, but phytoplankton are stuck floating in the ocean, so how can they get their nutrients? This is where the whales come in. Whales feed in the depths of the ocean, primarily on fish and krill. They then come to the surface for air and to defecate, or take a number two. Whale poo fertilizes the phytoplankton, giving them the nutrients required to photosynthesize. Without whales, we wouldn’t have nearly as many, if any, phytoplankton to absorb the thousands of tons of CO2 that they do.
This is only one of many reasons why whales are important to life on Earth. They allow phytoplankton to flourish all around the world, absorbing much of the CO2 we so selfishly produce. Since whales are essential to humans living on Earth, we must be keeping them safe, right? Well, not really.
Whaling has been practiced by many different cultures for thousands of years. The earliest known whaling expedition was in 6000 BC, where tools that resemble harpoons with ropes attached were used. Several small boats would sail out to find a whale, herd it towards the shore, and kill it when it got on the land. Commercial whaling heavily increased in the 17th century with the advances in technology that were being made. This is a time when whale oil was sought after to fuel lamps in factories. Baleen, or “whalebone” (fringed plates that hang in whale mouths which filter food from the saltwater), was also in high demand to make corsets, hats, umbrellas, riding crops, and buggy whips. Whaling began to decline at the end of the 19th century with the invention of kerosene, which reduced the number of whale products that were “needed”.
It doesn’t just end there, though. Despite a slight decline, commercial whaling never halted. An estimated 2.9 million whales were slaughtered in the 20th century, plummeting whale populations. Sperm whales lost two-thirds of their population, and blue whales up to 90 percent of theirs.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (IRWC) to manage whale populations and ensure balance in whale populations. In 1986, the IWC established a moratorium (temporary ban) on commercial whaling to allow whale populations to grow. The moratorium is still in effect today. The IWC also established two sanctuary areas in which commercial whaling is banned. One in 1979 located in the Indian Ocean, and the other in 1994 in the Southern Ocean. Scientific whaling is excluded in the IWC’s moratorium, meaning countries are still able to kill whales for scientific purposes. Aboriginal subsistence whaling (indigenous or aboriginal populations hunting whales for subsistence) is also not regulated under the IWC.
Despite the 1986 moratorium, many countries still engage in commercial whaling activities. In 2019, Japan withdrew from the IWC so that they could continue their commercial whale ventures. This does not mean that from 1986 to 2019 Japan did not participate in whaling. They abused the ‘scientific research purposes’ loophole and claimed to have been hunting whales for research. Their claims were that they needed to hunt whales to “eliminate uncertainty over the status of whale stocks, investigating stock structure and feeding ecology, and gathering information that the country considered necessary to calculate commercial catch limits of minke and sei whales.” Almost 500 marine biologists and scientists formally wrote letters to the IWC denouncing Japans “scientific research” program.
Japan was not the only country to ignore the IWC moratorium. Iceland (a founding member of the IWC) also continued whaling after 1986, again claiming it be for scientific purposes. Between 1986 and 1990, Iceland killed 90 whales per year and sent most of their whale products to Japan. They withdrew from IWC in 1992 but rejoined 10 years later. Upon their rejoining, they lodged a reservation to the moratorium, considered illegal to many countries. The reservation essentially allowed them to continue hunting minke and fin whales. Despite global disapproval, Iceland continues to hunt minke and fin whales regularly, very occasionally skipping a season due to lack of demand. Commercial hunting of minke and fins is approved in Iceland until at least 2023.
Norway also continues to hunt whales since the 1986 moratorium. The country stated an objection to the ban, and until 1993, they claimed their hunting to be scientific. After 1993, commercial whaling was done openly in Norway. The United States posed threats of trade sanctions against both Iceland and Norway in attempts to combat whaling. After discussions, the States ultimately decided to lift the threats and both countries continued whaling. Since the moratorium, Norway has killed over 14,000 minke whales (as of 2018).
Commercial whaling has declined greatly since the 20th century. In 2017, Iceland had only 11 whaling vessels, compared to their 350 in 1950. Despite the decline, rogue commercial whaling is greatly affecting whale populations, which in turn will affect human life on Earth. While the number of people eating whales has diminished, the number of people watching whales has risen sharply. In 2015, Japan brought in $8 million from whale watching, and one in eight visitors of Iceland go whale watching.
Encouraging these countries to stop commercial whaling can be done by continuing to prove whaling to be unprofitable, and whale watching and conserving these animals to be extremely profitable (because it is). The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been the face of the fight against whaling for decades. Self-proclaimed eco pirates, Sea Shepherd vessels would head out to sea, track down rogue whaling ships, and devise plans to bring them to a halt. The Sea Shepherd has grown since its foundation in 1977, becoming one of the leading groups in marine conservation.
Individual action truly adds up. Don’t buy products with baleen, whale oil, or ambergris, if traveling to one of the rogue whaling countries, be sure to support eco-tourism like whale watching, as opposed to supporting whaling companies. Sign petitions and get involved with anti-whaling companies worldwide!