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International Regulation on Whaling


Copyright: Ronald B. Mitchell
University of Oregon
28 June 1995


In 1946, the major whaling countries of the world signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in an effort, as the preamble to the convention states, "to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry." The Convention specifically noted that "proper" regulation of whaling would allow whale stocks to replenish over time so that more whales could "be captured without endangering these natural resources." The parties sought to design the Convention to confine "whaling operations . . . to those species best able to sustain exploitation." The ICRW was originally established in response to two essentially nonenvironmental economic concerns: a classic "tragedy of the commons" problem of overuse of an open access common pool resource that threatened to destroy the stock of whales and thereby destroy the whaling industry itself; and an overcapitalization problem in which whaling companies were spending ever-larger sums of money on whaling equipment to compete for a diminishing number of harder-to-find whales. To achieve this goal, the ICRW established a "schedule" of whale quotas and established the International Whaling Commission or IWC composed of government representatives as the body responsible for setting whale quotas each year. These whale catch quotas were to be set by 3/4 majority votes "based on scientific findings [that] take into consideration the interests of the consumers of whale products and the whaling industry."

In the 1970s and 1980s, increased numbers of nonwhaling states joined the ICRW under pressure from domestic environmental groups and international nongovernmental organizations. At the same time, the US government was pressing nonmember whaling states to join the IWC so they would be more susceptible to international pressures. By the mid-1980s, however, these two contrary pressures produced a 3/4 majority of member states that adopted a moratorium on all commercial whaling for ten years over the opposition of seven of the nine states whaling commercially at the time. Support for the moratorium came from a coalition composed of a) states convinced by a growing scientific consensus that further whaling of several whale species would almost certainly lead to the extinction of those species and b) other states that perceived whaling as morally wrong and unnecessary regardless of the state of the whale stocks. The moratorium was to take effect in 1985. However, four of the seven states that opposed the moratorium (Japan, Norway, Peru, and Russia) used the ICRW provision allowing the lodging of a legal objection that made the provision nonbinding for their state. Japan, Peru, and Russia eventually accepted the moratorium under pressure from the US. Norway has maintained its objection and conducted limited commercial whaling of minke whales in 1993, 1994, and 1995. Iceland withdrew its membership in the Convention in 1993 in opposition to the continuation of the commercial moratorium.

The moratorium on commercial whaling required re-evaluation of the status of whale stocks after 10 years with an understanding that the moratorium would be rescinded for those stocks that had recovered sufficiently to sustain commercial whaling. The ICRW also provided for continued taking of limited numbers of whales under provisions allowing "scientific whaling" and "aboriginal whaling." Since the moratorium began, Japan has conducted a rigorous scientific research program involving an annual take of approximately 300 minke whales but sells the whale meat on the commercial market. Korea, Iceland, and Norway have conducted smaller scientific whaling programs. Using arguments based on their traditional cultural and socio-economic dependence on whale meat, the IWC has approved the following aboriginal catches over the last several years:


Government Whale Species Take Requested Current Pop'n. Original Pop'n.*
United States Bowhead 45 7,500 30,000
Russia Gray 170 21,000 20,000
Greenland Fin 115 47,300 548,000
Greenland Minke 12 817,000 140,000
St. Vincent & Grenadines     Humpback 3 5,500 115,000

* N.B.: These are rough estimates of original and current stocks. Sources: International Whaling Commission, Annual Report, 1994, and personal communication, 7 July 1995; Oceanus, 32:1, Spring 1989; NMFS, Endangered Whales Status Update 1991.

Two different groups are currently requesting the right to recommence whaling: commercial whalers and traditional whalers. Japan and Norway have led recent pressure in the whaling commission to remove the commercial whaling moratorium and allow limited whaling of minke whales. They argue that the stocks of minke whales have recovered sufficiently and have sufficient replenishment rates that they can sustain low, carefully-set, levels of commercial whaling. Cetologists (whale scientists) confirm that

  • approximately 700,000-900,000 minke whales currently swim the world's oceans,
  • that this number significantly exceeds estimated populations of minke whales prior to the commencement of commercial whaling in the 1700s because minkes have taken over the ecological niche left by the decrease in stocks of larger whales due to whaling, and
  • that allowing a commercial take of 1/2 of 1% (about 4,000 whales per year) from this population would allow the minke whale stock to continue to increase in size since its replenishment rate is over 4%.

Japan and Norway have both threatened to follow Iceland's lead and withdraw from the IWC if the commercial moratorium is not rescinded. They have noted that if they choose to do so, they will set their own whaling quotas and will not allow international observers of any sort on their whaling ships.

New arguments for aboriginal whaling are also being heard. Just this year (1995), the native American Makah tribe in Washington state also began pressing for the right to recommence the taking of gray whales. The tribe argues a) that the treaty between the tribe and the United States government guarantees them the right to take whales and b) that recommencing whaling provides a crucial means to preserve their traditional culture and to redirect tribal youth away from crime, alcoholism, and other modern social ills. The commission has rejected Japan's requests for a catch allowance of 50 minke whales (from a coastal population of 25,000 minke whales) for three small Japanese coastal communities that have argued for their own cultural and socio-economic dependence on whale meat.


The American delegate to the IWC has asked you, her adviser, to provide a three page double-spaced memo with a recommended policy position for next year's IWC meeting. She has asked you to make sure your advice includes recommendations on each of the following points:

  1. whether to end the moratorium and allow commercial whaling of 1/2 of 1% of the estimated current population of minke whales,
  2. whether to request a new "aboriginal whaling" permit for the Makah,
  3. whether to request renewal of the "aboriginal whaling" permit for the Inuit,
  4. whether to recommend approval of Japan's request for a "scientific whaling" permit, and
  5. whether to recommend approval of Japan's request for an "aboriginal whaling" permit for its coastal whaling communities.

The delegate has requested that your policy paper include a discussion of the likely consequences of adopting your recommendation, including but not limited to the following:

  • The likely consequences for the population of various species of whales, especially the impact on the likelihood of extinction.
  • The domestic political response of the Makah and Inuit tribes, of nongovernmental environmental groups, and of the public at large.
  • The long-term ability to influence and control levels of commercial whaling in the world, and maintain the viability of the IWC regime.
  • The likelihood of compliance with your recommended policy and the ease with which monitoring of that compliance can be conducted.
  • The likelihood that Japan and Norway will remain members of the IWC and the likelihood that Iceland can be induced to rejoin the IWC.