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Whale Hunting: Is It Bad for the Environment?

Whaling refers to whale hunting and killing for commercial or recreational purposes. Commercial whaling operations and indigenous peoples hunting both target whales for food.

Historically, whaling was done for oil and spermaceti. Several species of small whales, dolphins, and porpoises are targeted for use as bait to catch fish. They are also slaughtered in an attempt to decrease competition for fish. Some populations actively pursue toothed whales for the value of their teeth as cash. Occasionally, aquariums may purchase live captures of tiny whales.


The International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986. However, Japan, Iceland, and Norway continue to hunt whales commercially and for supposed ‘scientific purposes.’ These three countries have slaughtered more than 25,000 whales between them since the moratorium was put in place.

Presently whale hunting takes place under three different guises:

  1. Commercial whaling is conducted under objection or reservation to the IWC’s moratorium on commercial whaling.
  2. Indigenous populations conduct aboriginal subsistence whaling for subsistence purposes to support their needs.
  3. Special permit whaling includes whales harvested following quotas allocated under a special permit and includes whales harvested for scientific purposes.

Whale Hunting through History

History of Whaling

Harpoon used for whale hunting

The history of whaling starts in coastal areas in prehistoric times. Neolithic Bangudae Petroglyphs in Korea represent whale hunting activities that may have begun as early as 6000 BC. It’s generally accepted that ancient hunting and gathering had minimal ecological effects. However, early whaling in the Arctic may have impacted freshwater ecosystems. The early practice of whaling impacted cultural evolution across multiple continents.

Whaling vessels were mainly merchant ships in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Basques pioneered commercial whaling. They dominated the industry for 500 years and expanded their reach over the North and South Atlantic. There was rising demand for whale oil in the 19th century. Then demand for margarine increased and, later, whale flesh in the 20th century. These prompted the development of modern whaling techniques.

In the 21st century, hunting is still practiced in Canada, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Russia, South Korea, the United States, and the Danish possessions of the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

Modern Whaling

Many whalers use harpoon guns launched from the fore of their boats to kill whales. In addition to whales, harpoons are in use for over a thousand years to catch enormous fish. Some of the smallest whale species are the major targets of modern whale hunting. These are minke whales, beluga whales, narwhals, and pilot whales. Gray whales, fin whales, bowhead whales, sperm whales, and humpback whales are all killed, albeit in much lower quantities.

Scientists have conducted surveys and determined that there are around 103,000 minkes in the northeast Atlantic. The IWC reported in January 2010 that they were unable to produce valid estimates at the current time on Antarctic minke whale populations. 

Whale Hunting Process in the Modern Day

Countries that still allow commercial whaling often use ships equipped with guns and explosives to hunt and kill whales. The current methods of capturing, killing, and processing whales are mostly unknown because they are illegal in most countries.

The commercial whaling industry of the 20th century relied heavily on modern technology. They used sonar equipment and motorized boats to track down whales. Whalers use small and medium-sized fishing boats in the spring and summer to hunt for minke whales. The boats have harpoon guns that shoot harpoons armed with grenades, while rifles are employed as backup weaponry. To find whales or flocks of birds feasting on fish or krill, the ships proceed slowly to places known as whaling grounds. When whales approach the boats, the hunters either do nothing or start pursuing the animal so they can shoot at it.

Using a harpoon gun, commercial whalers bury explosives roughly 70 centimeters into the bodies of whales. There was a report on Norway’s whale hunting methods published in 2006. It says hunters may need to fire repeated bullets at the whale with a rifle if the initial hit does not immediately kill it. According to the IFAW website, injured whales are winched onto whaling vessels while still alive. They may suffocate to death if their heads are kept underwater. Japan’s whaling industry boasts the sole factory ship in the world, allowing for on-board processing of whale meat.

See Related: Is Hunting Good or Bad for the Environment?

What is the reason for Whale Hunting?

Modern whaling is done mostly for food. This includes food for pets, fur farms, sled dogs, and humans, and for producing tusks, teeth, and vertebrae, which are then carved. Food sources for narwhals, belugas, and bowheads include meat and blubber (muktuk).

Animals and humans are responsible for the consumption of whale meat. The whale’s blubber is processed into inexpensive industrial items like animal feed or, in Iceland, a fuel supplement for whaling ships.

Hunting Whales for Specific Substances


Spermaceti candle and oil
Image by Genevieve Anderson used under CC BY-SA 3.0

The sperm whale gets its name from the spermaceti, a waxy material secreted by an oil sac in the animal’s skull. One of the main motivations for US commercial whalers to kill whales was to harvest spermaceti extracted from sperm oil and used to produce candles and other products.

Today, the spermaceti organ is responsible for the sperm whale’s echolocation abilities. Sperm whales communicate with one another and locate food via the strong clicks produced by their spermaceti organs.

Whale Oil

Whale oil
Image by Asknha1894 used under CC BY-SA 4.0

As whale fat became a commodity to Europeans and North American colonists, whales became something that whale hunters willing to undergo multi-year, perilous expeditions in terrible conditions could turn into money. Blubber was stripped from the flesh, then cooked to yield the oil, and practically all the remains of the carcass were discarded. Products such as margarine, motor oils, transmission fluid, face creams, soap, and more once relied on whale oil.

Sperm Oil

Sperm oil bottle and can
Image by Raphael D. Mazor used under CC BY 2.0

The primary motivation for hunting whales for hundreds of years was the demand for whale oil. It was used in the candle, lubricant, and lighting industries. Because it burnt cleanly and brilliantly with less smoke than other whale oils, sperm oil was much sought after. Depending on the size, one sperm whale may be worth between 25 and 50 barrels of oil. Under the Endangered Species Act, it is currently against the law to sell sperm oil or any other product from a whale in the United States.



Waxy ambergris is a lot like whale bile or excrement in texture. It may shield sperm whales’ soft stomach lining from the sharp teeth of squids.

Ambergris is a valuable element in perfumes, but it has a foul odor when it is first discharged from the whale. It becomes pleasant smelling after some time in the ocean. Ambergris is a valuable substance. It occasionally washes up on beaches, floats in the ocean, and sometimes found in the stomachs of whales killed for their meat. Ambergris was a major factor in driving American whalers to slaughter an enormous amount of the world’s sperm whale population.

Baleen Plates

Baleen of graywhale
Image by Jerry Kirkhart used under CC BY 2.0

Baleen whales don’t have teeth. Thus they must rely on a filtering system that has strong bristles. Baleen, also known as baleen plates, are bristles formed of keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails. Baleen whales use their baleen plates to strain the water for food, such as krill, tiny fish, and plankton.

During the peak of commercial whaling, certain baleen whale species were targeted at a far higher rate than others. These included blue whales, bowhead whales, and right whales. Gray whales, humpbacks, minke whales, fin whales, and sei whales are all other examples of baleen whales. Even though sperm whales are technically a separate kind of whale, they were nonetheless much sought after by New England whalers for their lamp oil.

To get baleen, or whalebone, whale hunters would capture and slaughter baleen whales. In the marketplace of the industrial age, baleen plates were sold and utilized as a plastic-like material. It supports a variety of garments and accessories, including corsets, hoop skirts, whips, umbrellas, and more.

Types of Whale Hunting

Commercial Whaling

Humpback Whale

Commercial whaling is the harvesting of whales for profit. Even though some whaling nations use science as a loophole, whales harvested for ‘scientific purposes’ are typically sold commercially.

Thousands of whales continue to be killed by harpoon guns yearly, even though a global ban on commercial whaling was implemented in 1986. Whaling fleets from Japan, Norway, and Iceland support their governments even though the rest of the world opposes this cruel, unnecessary practice.

See Related: Save the Manatee Club

Subsistence Whaling

Blue Whale

The IWC recognizes that whale products form an important part of the culture and diet of some indigenous people.

Consequently, aboriginal subsistence whaling by indigenous people for subsistence purposes is not considered the same as commercial whaling. It is not included in the moratorium on commercial whaling.

According to the IWC, the objectives for managing aboriginal subsistence whaling are as follows:

  • Ensure that risks of extinction are not seriously increased by whaling;
  • Enable native people to hunt whales at levels appropriate to their cultural and nutritional requirements (also called ‘need’); and
  • Move populations towards and then maintain them at healthy levels.

However, subsistence whaling can also be abused. For example, in the Faeroe Islands, indigenous people conduct an annual whale hunt. They do so when migrating whales pass by the islands to feed rich feeding grounds after giving birth in the warmer tropical waters.

According to the conservation organization Sea Shepherd, yearly, up to 1000 endangered long-finned pilot whales and other cetaceans are slaughtered in traditional hunts. The hunt is extremely cruel, conducted similarly to the annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan.

Whales are herded into coves and forced to the beach. Those that do not oblige have gaff hooks slammed into their blowholes and are then dragged from the ocean with ropes.

They are then knifed to death. The meat is shared amongst the islanders, but as far more whales are killed than eaten, surplus meat is typically left to rot on the beaches where the whales are carved. Senseless, needless, wasteful, and cruel, yet all perfectly legal.

See Related: Environmental Organizations in Africa

Scientific Whaling


Japan uses a loophole provided in the 1946 whaling convention. It allows whales to be harvested for scientific purposes. It enables them to continue harvesting whales without breaching the terms of the moratorium. ‘Scientific whaling’ is also practiced by Iceland and Norway. These countries harvest whales commercially under objection to the moratorium. 

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a scientific whaling permit requires that the meat of harvested whales is used (sold or given away). This makes a scientific permit a license to sell the meat obtained from slaughtered whales.

Scientific whaling is commercial whaling in disguise. How? Because whale products are obtained from scientifically harvested whales. There is very little useful scientific data can researchers can get from harvested whales.

While whaling countries are required to report their catch to the IWC, scientific whaling catch limits are set by the whaling countries rather than the IWC. It limits how well it can be controlled or regulated. Furthermore, the only countries that see the need to slaughter whales en-masse in the interest of ‘science’ actively market whale meat.

In this day and age, with all the modern tools and technology available to monitor whales. It is also to collect scientific data using non-invasive and/or non-lethal methods. This include getting DNA from skin samples. There is no need to kill an animal, let alone an entire pod of whales, to further the ends of science. Estimating population numbers and trends is achieved by using legitimate scientific methodology. 

Conservation Efforts Against Whale Hunting


International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was signed by countries around the world in 1946. It is due to years of international cooperation to curb the hunting of whales. The ICRW intends to facilitate the orderly growth of the whaling business and the preservation of whale stocks. It regulates commercial, research, and indigenous subsistence whaling for its 88 member countries.

By establishing a system of international regulation for whale fisheries, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling hopes to:

  • Protect whales of all species from being overhunted;
  • Promote the sustainable growth of whale populations; and 
  • Guarantee that the vital natural resources represented by whale populations will be available to future generations.

The IWC is the major tool for carrying out these goals. The IWC holds yearly meetings. It adopts a legally binding “schedule” that governs catch quotas, whaling methods, protected areas, and the permission to kill whales for scientific research.

International Whaling Commission

International Whaling Commission

With the help of its Scientific Committee, the International Conservation and Research on Whales (ICRW) established the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to make decisions about hunting quotas and other issues. As a result, countries that aren’t members aren’t required to follow its rules and can instead use their management strategies. Only 13 of the larger whale species are protected by these rules, and it is still debatable whether smaller whales should be included.

On July 23, 1982, the International Whaling Commission resolved to ban the commercial killing of great whales. The ban started with the 1985–1986 season. The IWC’s Scientific Committee has asked to propose quotas for certain whale stocks since 1992. However, the Plenary Committee has always said no.

The 88 member states of the International Whaling Commission debated whether or not to lift the 24-year ban on commercial whaling at their meeting in Morocco in 2010. Japan, Norway, and Iceland have petitioned the organization to reverse their decision.

A group of countries opposed to whaling have proposed a solution that would let whaling continue, but only with limited quotas and strict monitoring. Whaling in the Southern Ocean would be outlawed under their idea as well. Even though the Southern Ocean was declared a whale sanctuary in 1994, more than 200 scientists and specialists have spoken out against the compromise to repeal the prohibition. Some people are against the compromise plan because they want to see all commercial whaling stop, but they are fine with indigenous peoples catching enough whales for subsistence.

Debate on Whaling

Consequences of Whaling on Carbon Cycles

Researchers have compared the ocean’s capacity to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide before and after the peak of whaling activity, hundreds of years apart. Scientists have calculated that there are over 9 million fewer tons of carbon in the ocean due to the loss of large marine animals due to whaling.

Whales significantly impact the carbon cycle in both their life and death. A living whale’s poop can help boost primary productivity at the ocean’s surface and vice versa because it cycles carbon and nitrogen through the water column. When whales die, they sometimes drop to the ocean floor as part of a whale fall, where their carbon contributes to a short-lived ecosystem.

Whale populations have increased since an international prohibition was placed on the practice. However, they still can’t absorb as much carbon dioxide as they would like because of climate change and other factors.

Sustainability of Whaling

The World Wide Fund for Nature reports that ship collisions account for 90% of all human-caused deaths of northern right whales, and hence, the WWF is advocating for restrictions on ship traffic in particular locations. Cetaceans are in danger of extinction due to human noise pollution. The noise made by large ships and boats is often audible to whales because it is in the same frequency band.

More animals are killed by by-catch than are killed through hunting directly. Several researchers have speculated that pollution may play a role. As an added note, the IWC has seen multiple illegal whale-hunting incidents by its member nations since the moratorium was put in place. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) announced findings from genetic testing of whale meat and blubber on sale in Japan’s open market in 1993. The studies revealed that 10 and 25 percent of the examined tissues came from non-minke baleen whales, which were not permitted at the time by IWC standards. The percentage of non-minke baleen whales in subsequent samples (in 1995 and 1996) dropped dramatically to 2.5%.

See Related: What is Overfishing? Examples & Solutions to Prevent

Risks of Whaling to Health

Long-lived predators like whales accumulate methylmercury from their prey in their bodies. Since mercury bioaccumulates in humans, it becomes dangerous at high enough amounts to be consumed regularly. In the Caribbean, for example, consumers are cautioned against consuming more than one serving every three weeks due to elevated levels.

Whale Hunting Countries


About 600 narwhals each year are slaughtered in Canada. Each year, they take the lives of 100 belugas in the Beaufort Sea, 300 in Nunavik, and an untold number in Nunavut. Between 300 and 400 belugas are killed annually in the Beaufort and Quebec districts. Although the authors claim that hunters resist supplying complete numbers, we do not have updated numbers for Nunavut since 2003, when the Arviat area, home to roughly half of Nunavut’s hunters, killed 200–300 belugas.

In northern areas where whale meat is a staple food, the harvested meat is sold at local markets and grocery stores. Beluga is a game animal rarely consumed by Hudson Bay hunters. Dogs only get a little portion of what would otherwise be left for wild animals. The meat may be dried in other regions for human consumption later.


Whalle hunting in Iceland
Image by Dagur Brynjólfsson used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Only Iceland and a few other countries continue to operate whaling fleets. While one company targets fin whales primarily for export to Japan, the other targets minke whales for home consumption due to the high demand for meat among locals and tourists alike. Whaling and Iceland’s whale-watching industry are at odds. The commercial whaling industry in Iceland reopened in 2006.


Indonesian traditional whale hunters

The last two Indonesian whaling communities are Lamalera Lembata, and Lamakera, on the neighboring island of Solor. The hunters use every part of the animal because they adhere to religious taboos. About half of what is caught stays in the community, while the rest is traded at nearby markets.

During traditional Lamaleran whaling, fishermen would spend 2 months mourning over the “death” of their wooden fishing boats. These boats were constructed by a clan of local craftsmen. Motors power modern Lamaleran boats. However, the fishermen are expected to row the vessel and the whale back to shore when they have caught the whale.

Because of these long-standing customs, whaling was always an inherently risky pursuit. A boat was once dragged some 120 kilometers (75 miles) towards Timor by a pursued whale (see Nantucket sleighride). In another incident, a hunted whale capsized a boat, forcing the fishermen to swim back to shore some 12 hours later.


Australian Customs Whaling In The Southern Ocean
Image by Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia used under CC BY-SA 3.0

 The Japanese government wants to resume whaling sustainably under the supervision of the IWC. They need whale products (meat, etc.) to help protect fishing resources. Many groups criticized the research program as opposed to whaling as a cover for commercial whaling. The sample size is excessive, and the same data may be collected without killing any whales by analyzing whale tissue samples (such as skin) or feces.

The research is being conducted by the Japanese government-funded Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR). The ICR disagrees, saying that data obtained from tissue and/or excrement samples is insufficient and that the sample size is necessary for the results to be representative.

Both an adult and a juvenile minke whale have been dragged on-board Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru.

It’s no secret that some countries take a dim view of Japan’s scientific whaling program. Members of the IWC opposed to whaling have issued non-binding resolutions calling for Japan to halt the operation. As for the continuing scientific whaling, Japan says that whale stocks for some species are high enough to sustain commercial hunting. It blames the filibustering by the anti-whaling side.

The Japanese government exposes itself to international legal action. They are continuing commercial whaling operations within their territorial waters. Because of this, they might face legal action, according to a legal opinion commissioned by the Australian Marine Conservation Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.


Having objected to the moratorium imposed by the IWC, Norway is exempt from its provisions. To determine the long-term health of the whale population, commercial whaling was suspended for five years before starting up again in 1993. Only minke whales can be legally hunted in the United States.

Recaptures ranged from 487 in 2000 to 592 in 2007. The limit for minke whales in 2011 was established at 1,286 animals. Only the estimated 102,000 minke whales in the Northeast Atlantic are taken.


Along with Iceland and Japan, Russia extensively hunted for whales (including dolphins). One of the worst environmental crimes of the 20th century was committed by the Soviet Union. It whalers killed around 534,000 whales between the 1930s and the 1980s.

From 1948 through 1973, the Soviet Union ran an extensive illegal whaling program under the direction of the central government. Whaling was seen as a high-status, financially rewarding profession in Soviet culture. Whalers were seen as intrepid explorers, and their safe return to shore was often met with parades and other lavish celebrations. The Soviet Union went from a rural economy to an industrial giant.

That is because it sacrificed long-term resource viability to meet aggressive output goals. Concerns over long-term profitability did not limit whaling. The reason is that the government had seized control of the fishing industry. Salary bonuses of 25%-60% and other rewards, awards, and privileges were used to motivate managers and employees to meet and exceed their production goals. Whaling was only one of several enterprises that descended into a “manic numbers game.”

Following IWC law, the indigenous Chukchi people of Chukotka Autonomous Okrug in the Russian Far East may take up to 140 gray whales from the North-East Pacific population annually. About 40 beluga whales are hauled in from the Sea of Okhotsk annually. About 60 belugas were caught annually in the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea in the early 1980s, but there is no updated information on these catches.

United States of America

The Alaska Beluga Whale Committee oversees the annual capture of around 300 beluga whales by commercial whaling operations in the United States. Two hundred fifty to six hundred are taken annually.

The subsistence hunting of the bowhead whale is overseen by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. It turn reports to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is practiced by 9 separate indigenous Alaskan communities. Bowhead whales number around 10,500 in Alaskan waters, but the annual hunt kills off about 50 of them. Even though the IWC Scientific Committee predicts a 3.2% annual population growth, conservationists are concerned that this hunt is unsustainable. Until 1996, the annual average of one or two gray whales was also taken in the hunt. For environmental reasons, that year’s limit was set at zero. The gray whale hunt could start again when some evaluation time has passed. It’s estimated that bowhead whales are five to ten times heavier than minke whales.

In 1999, amid complaints from animal rights groups, the Makah tribe in Washington state also resumed whaling. The Treaty of Neah Bay gives them the legal authority to recommence limited whaling of the gray whale, which they hope to do soon (Article 4 of the Treaty).

Related Resources


How many whales are killed yearly by whale hunters?

According to the first global estimate of whales killed by industrial harvesting in the last century, approximately 3 million cetaceans were wiped off in what is perhaps the biggest cull of any species in human history regarding total biomass.

Is killing whales illegal in the US?

The United States Congress enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. (MMPA). According to the Act, any American citizen or resident is prohibited from doing any activity that could result in the death, injury, or harassment of any marine animal, regardless of the species’ population size.

Is there an international law to stop commercial whaling?

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) ended commercial whaling for good in 1986. Some exceptions have been made, but the general rule remains the same. Japan and Norway are the only two countries that have ignored the ban.

Which countries still practice whale hunting?

Japan, Norway, and Iceland are some of the countries that engage in commercial whaling. Compared to the other two countries, Norway is the worst offender in whale slaughter. In February 2022, Iceland declared that it would end commercial whaling by 2024.