The worldwide campaign against commercial whaling really took off in the 1970s, although the industry was already in decline by this time. However, despite many years of pressure by governments around the world, and by environmental protection organisations such as
Greenpeace, whaling does still take place and there are other threats to a number of whale species. It is therefore too early to assume that the battle has been won.

Public opinion had much to do with turning the tide in favour of whales. The 1970s campaigns, which included direct action by people in small boats who disrupted whale hunts, were broadcast across the world and attracted considerable attention. This is turn put pressure on politicians who were forced to pass legislation to ban commercial whaling. In particular, the International Whaling Commission was pressured into passing a moratorium on whaling in 1982 which came into force a few years later.

However, this was not the end of the story, mainly because some of the countries that made most money from whaling either ignored the moratorium or found ways round it. The biggest loophole was the provision that allowed whales to be killed for the purpose of “scientific research”, and this term has been exploited, particularly by Japan, to justify the taking of large numbers of whales.

A whale mother and calf are taken for "scientific research"Credit: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Australia licence

An important step was made in May 2014 when the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s claim to be undertaking whaling in the Southern Ocean for scientific reasons was bogus. Japan’s whalers had no choice but to stop their operations, although they have threatened to resume whaling in 2015, presumably after they have come up with another justification that they hope will get round the rules.

Apart from Japan, the only other nations with substantial whaling operations are Iceland and Norway, but those operations are small in comparison with those of Japan.

Other Threats to Whales

Even if no nation undertook commercial whaling, whale populations would still be threatened by human activity and those threats apply to all whale species and not just those (such as fin and minke) that have been subject to whaling in recent years.

Global warming, leading to disruption of the marine food chain, is an obvious threat, as is the dumping of waste at sea. The massive amounts of plastic waste that have found their way into the Pacific Ocean are particularly worrying, as this is a growing long-term problem for which there does not appear to be a short-term solution.

Commercial fishing for other species also harms whales, many of which become entangled in nets that stretch for miles in open oceans.

What is the Answer?

Whale species will be preserved if they are given a fighting chance. The elimination of commercial whaling would help enormously, but this will only happen if the demand for whale products is removed. Whale meat is eaten in only a few countries, with Japan being the main culprit – many of the whales killed by Icelandic whalers are processed into meat that is exported to Japan. If Japanese people can be persuaded to change their dietary habits, the main incentive behind commercial whaling would be removed.

Because economic drivers are the most difficult to overcome, thought should be given to how the people who make a living from whaling can be given alternative ways to do so. Just as most “big game hunting” has given way to “big game watching” the same could be done for whales. There is money to be made in “whale tourism”.

Other moves that will help include reforms of fishing practices, similar to those being undertaken to protect sharks and turtles that are taken as the “bycatch” of the tuna fishing industry. It is also important to establish areas of ocean as “whale sanctuaries” in which the whole ecosystem is allowed to thrive without destructive human interference.

Above all, urgent steps must be taken to reduce worldwide carbon emissions and pollution of the oceans. Unless this is done, it will not just be whales that face the threat of extinction.