The International Whaling Commission was set up in 1946 to regulate the global whaling industry. At the time, several whale species were on the verge of extinction due to the catastrophic over-hunting seen in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Commission was initially dominated by a strongly anthropocentric ethos, which resulted in a continuation of the severe depletion in whale populations seen prior to regulation. Yet as global environmental awareness grew in the 1970s, NGOs began to put pressure on the Commission to protect whale populations and adopt conservationist measures. At the same time, non-whaling nations began to join the Commission, calling for a moratorium on commercial whaling, which was eventually adopted in 1982. In the years since, the move toward conservationism has continued to gain momentum, causing friction amongst whaling nations such as Japan, Norway, and Iceland. 

On September 13, 2018, in Florianópolis, Brazil, a majority of the International Whaling Commission – the global whaling industry’s main governing body – rejected a Japanese proposal to overturn the moratorium on commercial whaling observed since 1986. It also accepted, by 40 votes to 27, that the proper function of the Commission in the 21st century is to ensure the recovery of cetacean populations to their pre-industrial levels. 

For an organisation that, in the first 40 years of its existence, routinely authorised oceanic massacres that left several cetacean species teetering on the brink of extinction, such a commitment to whale welfare might appear surprising. Indeed, if the dignitaries who set up the International Whaling Commission in 1946 were still alive today, they would probably not recognise their own creation. 

How did one of the most brutal and exploitative seagoing industries ever seen develop a conscience? What inspired this drastic change and what can environmental activists learn from the transformation of the International Whaling Commission?    

The Early Whaling Industry    

Whaling is an ancient practice. It is estimated that whale hunts started as long ago as 2200 BC. The first industrial hunts were undertaken by 11th-century Basque whalers, who were then overtaken by the British, Dutch, Japanese, and Russian industries. American whalers entered the industry relatively late in the 16th century and were not properly established until the 18th century. 

During this period, whales were seen as a free resource: “a gift from nature available to anyone who would hunt and kill them.” – as authors D’Amato and Chopra put it. This reckless ‘free-for-all’ attitude quickly led to the depletion of coastal whale populations as well as the near extinction of Greenland bowhead whales and Biscayan right whales. This did not result in a change of attitude from whalers, but merely in a change of target, signaling the beginning of the era of pelagic (open-sea) whaling. 

Improvements in factory ships allowed whales to be processed entirely at sea, and the time saved by not having to return to land was put into hunting more whales. The introduction, particularly by Norwegian whalers, of more efficient killing techniques such as the exploding harpoon, was similarly effective in increasing the number of whales caught.

Unregulated whaling reached new heights in the early 20th century, due to further technological innovations. Most important amongst these was Peter Sørlle’s ‘slip-way’, a “vent through which whales could be hauled onto the deck to be flensed.” According to Malgosia Fitzmaurice, author of the book ‘Whaling and International Law”, in 1910, over 10,000 whales were killed, and after a brief lull during World War One, the numbers increased dramatically, such that by 1931 over 40,000 whales were being killed per year. 

Whaling nations soon began to realise that their collective profits depended upon the availability of ample numbers of whales, and so decided to regulate the industry. Attempts to do so included prohibiting the killing of pregnant females and females accompanied by calves, and prohibition of the hunting of vulnerable species such as right whales. Yet such measures were largely ineffective, and whaling continued more or less unabated; by 1938, the extinction of the entire whale species was a very real concern.  

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The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling 1946

In 1946, recognising the need for more comprehensive regulation of the industry, whaling and non-whaling nations alike signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which is still in force today. This was a conservationist treaty, in that it committed itself “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks.” It would be naive, however, to suggest that the Convention was intended to promote whale welfare as an end in itself; conservation was instead a means to the end of securing the “orderly development” and longevity of the whaling industry by avoiding the extinction of the whale. Indeed, many of the catch limits and other conservationist measures set out in the Schedule to the Convention were intended to be revised once whale stocks had started to recover from over-exploitation and become more abundant. 

The Convention, therefore, is not the watershed between the strongly anthropocentric ethos by which early whaling was governed and the more whale-friendly approach which characterises the modern industry. It is only through the International Whaling Commission that that change becomes clear. 

The Commission was set up under the Convention and meets annually to review and revise measures relating to the conduct of whaling. It is therefore well placed to respond to fluctuations in the consensus of its members. In its early years, the Commission was ineffective; its meetings in the period 1948-60 involved arguments over scientific data and catch quotas and threats of withdrawal from the Convention. The Commission found itself incapable of enforcing its rules, which many countries simply ignored in preference of safeguarding their national economic interests. By the mid-1960s, it became clear that the Commission had failed to deliver upon its objective of conserving whale stocks at their 1946 levels, and, by 1970, whale stocks were so seriously depleted that it was estimated that even if whaling were totally banned, it would take 50 years for blue whale stocks to recover.

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Yet, even during this period of ineffective regulation and the catastrophic whale depletions which resulted from it, the seeds of change within the Commission began to emerge. In 1958, the Commission discussed the humaneness of whale killing for the first time. In the same year, at the Geneva Conference, a resolution was adopted that advocated the use of “methods for the capture and killing of marine life […] which will spare them suffering to the greatest extent possible.” Such resolutions demonstrate an incipient awareness, both within and outside of the Commission, of the need to respect the sentience of whales by causing them as little pain as possible. 

Further, in 1970, the Commission adopted the policy of Maximum Sustainable Yield. By refusing to specify a time limit for the recovery of whale stocks, this policy prevented the premature resumption of whaling before recovery was complete, and can therefore be seen as a conservationist measure that “constituted a bridge towards protectionism.”

This growth in protectionist sentiment increased during the 1970s, perhaps due to the increasing global awareness of the need to protect the environment occurring at that time. Other major environmental events, such as the UN Stockholm Conference and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, as well as the vociferous campaigning of international anti-whaling NGOs, served to increase the external pressure on the Commission to adopt protectionist measures, whilst the continuing influx of non-whaling nations into the Commission during the late 1970s and early 1980s increased the internal pressure to boiling point. These nations were responding to public opinion within their own countries, which had come to see whaling itself as barbaric and unnecessary. 

Calls for a moratorium on commercial whaling, chiefly advanced by the United States and opposed by major whaling nations such as Japan and Norway, started in 1972, and by 1977, the protectionist sentiment was becoming more dominant; proposals for moratoriums in 1979, 1980 and 1981 fell just short of the majority required. Eventually, in 1982, a proposal for a five-year moratorium on commercial whaling was passed by 25 votes to 7 and took effect in 1986. 

From the Moratorium to Florianópolis 

Whaling nations, such as Norway, were prepared to file official objections to the moratorium and exercise their right to ‘opt out’ of being bound by it. By 1985 however, the threat of US trade sanctions had succeeded in bringing most of them, most importantly Japan, into line with the Commission’s decision. Japan’s subsequent appeals to reintroduce catch quotas for whales it claimed were at harvestable levels were flatly denied, as was its request that it be allowed to return to small-type coastal whaling. However, Japan continued to use an exception to the moratorium, namely that of ‘scientific whaling’, to harvest between 200 and 1,200 whales every year. Iceland also utilised this exception intensively before withdrawing from the Convention in 1990, only to rejoin in 2002 having made itself exempt from the moratorium. Thus, whilst the moratorium succeeded in reducing the number of whales killed, whaling nations continued to find ways around it. 

international whaling commission

Figure 1: Map locating the main whaling nations and different species of whales caught around the world in 2017

However, by the turn of the century, the continuing influx of non-whaling nations into the Commission meant that whaling nations were increasingly outnumbered, and it had become clear that the Commission’s main concern was the preservation of whale stocks per se, rather than just as a means of supporting the whaling industry. It began to look increasingly unlikely that the moratorium would ever be lifted, and, frustrated at what it saw as a betrayal of the Convention’s true purpose, in 2018 Japan tabled a proposal for the resumption of limited commercial whaling. The rejection of this by the Commission, as well as its assertion that the use of lethal force is unnecessary for scientific or research whaling, led Japan to withdraw from the Convention in July 2019.

The Florianópolis decision signals the culmination of a total sea-change within the International Whaling Commission. No longer are the whales of the world seen as a free resource to be harvested for profit. Instead, they are recognised as sentient, intelligent animals who are entitled to a life free from human cruelty. The transformation of the Commission is emblematic of the broadening of human consciousness in relation to our place within the natural world which has occurred over the last 100 years. The idea that the natural world is there for us to exploit without consequence is slowly fading away and being replaced by the realisation that we have a duty to safeguard the animals with whom we share the planet and to atone for the harm we have already caused them. 

It would, however, be naive to assume that the regulatory bodies of exploitative industries will simply come to accept this duty of their own accord. The International Whaling Commission certainly did not. Rather, it took a swell of public opinion against whaling, led by NGOs and non-whaling states, to influence the Commission into action. The anti-whaling campaign was also helped by the decline in the economic importance of whale products in the 20th century; whale oil was replaced by kerosene in lighting and by vegetable oils in margarine, whilst demand for whale meat was always limited to a handful of nations and indigenous populations. Had this economic decline not occurred, fewer nations would have given up their national whaling industries, and the protests of anti-whaling activists would likely have fallen on deaf ears. Thus, whilst the transformation of the International Whaling Commission is undoubtedly a good thing for whales and environmental activists, it also serves to remind us that an exploitative regulatory regime will only change its spots if forced to do so by public opinion and financial incentives.      

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