When Whaling Was Accepted

Not long ago, whaling was more or less universally accepted. Whale oil lit lamps and kept machines running smoothly in industrial nations. Whalebone, or baleen, was used in parasol ribs and women's dresses. Whales were seen as resources to be exploited rather than thinking, feeling animals with their own intrinsic value. Whale stocks were considered limitless, or nearly so — that is, until these great animals began to disappear.

A Long History of Exploitation

Those who oppose a return to commercial whaling point to a long history of unsustainable exploitation and mismanagement of whale stocks, one that led to the endangerment and near-extinction of many whale species.

For decades, annual catch limits established by the IWC were more than whale populations could bear. Likewise, secret and illegal whaling activity — most notably by the Soviet Union between 1951 and 1972 (according to evidence of falsified reports revealed in the early 1990's) — played a major role in nearly wiping out many whales that are still endangered to this day. Would a resumption of commercial whaling inevitably lead to a repeat of history?

The Intrinsic Value of Whales

In the 1960's, when whale stocks were crashing and undersea exploration was on the rise, a new breed of scientists began to express concern for whales. Instead of simply warning about the depletion of a natural resource, these scientists spoke about the intrinsic value of whales, something that made many of their peers uncomfortable. As whales were increasingly watched, filmed and studied, their high intelligence, rich social lives, and ability to feel emotion and experience pain became apparent. These revelations galvanized activists like Paul Watson, who helped start the anti-whaling movement in the 1970's. They also influenced scientists, policy makers, the public — in fact, entire nations — leading to an international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

No Reason to Hunt Whales?

Those opposed to whaling say there is no longer any reason to hunt whales in a world where petroleum has replaced whale oil, whale meat is no longer necessary for survival and we know so much about the intelligence and complex social lives of whales. We know that, when not killed instantly, it often takes 10 to 35 minutes for a whale to die once harpooned, and that they suffer. In Japan, a 2006 Gallup poll found that 83 percent of Japanese had not eaten whale in long time, or never. As evidenced by the booming whale-watching industry, millions would rather see whales alive than dead. And the IWC continues to oppose a return to commercial whaling.

Why do we still hunt whales?

Human beings have hunted whales for thousands of years. Evidence of whale-hunting activity in Japan dates back to at least 10,000 B.C., but the modern controversy over whaling really began at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of steam ships and explosive harpoons. Until quite recently, whaling was accepted as a legitimate source of food, oil and bone products in many countries; in Japan, for example, whale meat was an important food source during and after World War 2, and still accounted for almost half the nation’s protein in 1947.

This history is an important part of why the Japanese continue to hunt whales. Attempts to stop the nation's whaling are perceived by many as a threat to Japanese culture. According to its defenders, eating whale meat is an old and impenetrable Japanese tradition. "No one has the right to criticize the food culture of another people," said Matayuki Komatsu of Japan's Fisheries Agency.

A sense of pride also fuels Japan's commitment to whaling. To some, the words and actions of those who oppose Japanese whaling are "culturally arrogant" and unnecessarily harsh. This only serves to strengthen the country's resolve to maintain its whaling, according to some.

Widespread opposition to whaling began in the 1960s and 1970s, when whales were shown to be highly intelligent and social animals that could feel pain and experience emotion. The methods used to kill whales were seen as excessively cruel, often causing them considerable suffering before death. Whaling opponents also pointed out that petroleum-based products had replaced whale oil as a fuel source for lamps, and that farming now provided abundant protein from more sustainable sources. With support from scientists and governments, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) passed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. By 1986, most nations had completely stopped their whaling activities.