Whale Conservation – Regulation and Reality

Whale Conservation – Regulation and Reality

In spite of massive efforts around the world by conservationists and activists, and the IWC (International Whaling Commission) ban on whale hunting, there are many instances of the practice continuing. This is in part due to official exemptions to the IWC ban, some of which are open to abuse.


  • Classified as Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling, the IWC recognises that specified aboriginal peoples hunt whales to maintain their communities or their culture. Under this relatively uncontroversial exemption, grey whales, humpback, fin, bowhead and minke whales may be hunted in strictly limited numbers.
  • The exemption made for ‘scientific research’ is more controversial. Japan has used this clause since 1987, killing around 330 whales each year for purported research. However, the WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) group state that most of the whales end up as meat on sale commercially.

Very few genuine scientific papers have emerged from Japan’s whaling activities. In 2014 the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s ‘scientific research’ should be suspended, as it was clear the hunting was not genuinely for research. Then in 2016, the IWC ruled that direct application now needs to be made for any ‘scientific research’ exemption. Even so, the hunting of whales by Japan has continued, and it is reported that in this year’s whaling season they aim to catch up to 333 minke whales. Determined to change the IWC regulations, in 2018 Japan brought to the table the proposal that numbers of some whale species had risen to a sustainable level and therefore whaling of them should be resumed on a managed scale. Representatives from Australia, in particular, spoke strongly against this, and the proposal was defeated by 41 votes to 27.

  • The IWC does not allow the hunting and capturing of whales to sell as livestock for commercial purposes. Because it does allow, in very limited circumstances, the capture of live whales for scientific research, this is open to abuse. ScienceAlert reported in November 2018 the discovery of a ‘whale prison’ off the Russian coast, holding 11 orcas and 90 belugas captive in poor conditions in net cages.

It is alleged by the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta that these whales are waiting to be sold to Chinese aquariums and entertainment parks. It also reports that four companies (LLC Oceanarium DV, LLC Bely Kit, LLC Afalina, and LLC Sochi Dolphinarium) control the market for sea mammal export. Russian authorities are currently assessing whether this is illegal commercial activity.

  • Norway continues to hunt whales under the umbrella of their position of ‘objection’ to the ban, which is allowable under IWC rules. Iceland, also, has avoided the ban by citing the fact that it left the IWC in 1992, rejoining in 2002, announcing their (self-termed) ‘reservation’ about the ban. They claim this exempts them, but other countries dispute this.

It may seem strange that the IWC, the regulatory body for conservation of whales, allows such loopholes. But, although the measures decided upon by the IWC are legally binding, the organisation does not itself have the power to sanction member countries who flout them. As the 89 countries signed up to the IWC do so voluntarily, it is perhaps better to keep such countries inside the IWC, where at least dialogue can take place.


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