Whaling is the hunting of whales by boat, to capture and kill whales for the products obtained from them.
Evidence shows whaling was happening as far back as 4,000 years ago. Whaling took place in the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Hunting was on a small scale, often by using small boats to drive a single whale towards the beach where it would become stranded. Ancient tools have been found, in the form of harpoons with ropes or lines.
For communities living in inhospitable climates or regions, whales were an important source of food and raw materials. Hunting was driven by need. Almost the entire whale was utilised, and no more whales were killed than were needed. The blubber, meat, skin and organs provided nutrient-rich food. Some was preserved to be stored for later use. The baleen (by which baleen whales filter feed) was flexible and used for weaving baskets and for fishing line. Even the bones were utilised for making tools.
In the Middle Ages, whaling became more prevalent in Northern Europe as whale blubber and the baleen became more sought-after raw materials. By this time, however, this was for convenience and vanity rather than for survival. Oil for use in lamps was produced from whale blubber, notably from right whales, bowhead whales, and sperm whales. The baleen was used extensively to stiffen women’s’ corsets, creating the fashionable shape of the time.
In the pre-gas or electrical lighting era of the 17th century, the demand for whale oil led to whaling on an increasingly industrial scale. By the 1800s, gun-loaded harpoons and large steam-driven ships added to the intensity of whale hunting. It became a lucrative multi-million-dollar business in the United States, with hundreds of whaling ships scouring the oceans. It is estimated that more whales were hunted in the early 1900s than in all of the preceding four centuries. Many species, such as the blue whale and the sperm whale, became threatened with extinction. Although the demand for whale products as fuel decreased with the advent of fossil fuels on a large scale, the demand for other purposes remained high – for example for use in perfumes and soap and for whale meat.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in 1946, by several countries concerned about the over-hunting of whales. Its effectiveness was limited, however, and whale numbers continued to decline. Then, in 1982 the IWC called for a moratorium on all commercial whaling. Only two countries did not sign up to this, Japan and Norway.
After negotiations, two categories were agreed on for exemption from the moratorium: the first is to allow groups with a history of whale hunting for sustenance to continue on this basis (such as some Inuit in Canada) and the second is to allow hunting of a small number of whales for scientific purposes, as does Japan. This is controversial, as it has been suggested that this ‘scientific’ purpose is taken advantage of. Negotiations continue to take place on a case for case basis, between the IWC and those who wish to hunt whales and cite an exceptional reason. Unfortunately, maverick individuals and companies still flout national agreements, and this illicit hunting is one of the factors that continue to negatively affect whale numbers.