International whaling

Marguerite Tarzia and Bill McCormick, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Section

Background to the whaling issue

Since 1986 whaling has polarised the international community. This followed the International Whaling Commission (IWC) ‘moratorium’ on commercial whaling—a response to the global over-exploitation of many whale species. Pre-moratorium, commercial whaling occurred globally with the largest whaling grounds located in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. Many species came close to extinction. While some show signs of recovery, other species remain critically low in numbers. Fin whales are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as an endangered species. Disputed population estimates of Antarctic minke whales are of a few hundred thousand animals. This estimate is given as justification for currently hunting this species.

The ban on commercial whaling

The IWC moratorium was initially designed as a pause in commercial whaling. Rigorous population assessments were planned, which could be used in a revised management scheme (RMS) to determine sustainable catch limits for unprotected species. Although the methodologies for population estimates are improving, robust numbers for most species (pre and post commercial whaling) do not exist. The ban on whaling has continued as countries are unable to agree on both the acceptability of commercial whaling, and sustainable catch limits. In response to this, Iceland, Norway and Japan have lobbied hard to reinstate ‘sustainable’ commercial whaling, and have continued to hunt whales under special scientific permits, or objections to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. The appendix I listing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) prohibits all trade for many whale species. Iceland, Norway and Japan object to the listing of these whale species, which means that they can trade in whale meat amongst themselves. Recently, evidence has emerged of black market trade in whale meat from Japan to South Korea and America—a breach of CITES.

Norway and Iceland

Norway and Iceland objected to the IWC moratorium, and so are not bound by the ban. They therefore continue to commercially hunt fin and common minke whales with self-allocated annual quotas. Iceland also conducts scientific whaling. They both hunt in the North Atlantic, within their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).


Japan is bound by the IWC moratorium. Since 1987 Japan has issued permits to hunt whales for scientific purposes—a clause in the Whaling Convention permits whaling for ‘essential’ and ‘critical research’. The scientific program includes whaling in Japanese coastal waters and the North Pacific and within the IWC Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary (created in 1994). The sanctuary prohibits commercial whaling, but does not prohibit scientific whaling. Under Japan’s Antarctic research program, its annual quota is 850 Antarctic minke whales, 50 fin and 50 humpback whales. This program has angered anti-whaling countries, who argue that ‘scientific whaling’ is in fact commercial whaling in all but name. Minke whale meat from the research activity is sold legally within Japan, as the Convention requires the meat to be used. Japan denies all accusations that the scientific whaling program is commercial whaling in disguise.

Anti-whaling perspective

Anti-whaling countries have consistently voted against a return to commercial whaling under the RMS, due to fears that commercial whaling will not be effectively managed, will expand and lead to over-exploitation, and that sustainable catch limits cannot be reached when significant uncertainty remains over population numbers. Some countries oppose the concept of whaling in any form. This led to an impasse in 2007, which continues to date. At the same meeting, the IWC passed a non-binding resolution asking Japan to halt scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean. The IWC Scientific Committee found that the current research goals were neither critical nor requiring lethal measures, and that previous research goals had not been reached.

2010 proposals at the IWC

Since 2007 the IWC has pushed for a workable compromise. During the 2010 IWC meeting a new proposal was introduced which recommended:

  • maintaining the moratorium but introducing a 10-year interim period with IWC-regulated whaling and the elimination of self-allocated quotas and
  • capping quotas at significantly lower levels than current catch limits.

New Zealand backed the proposal as a means to reduce the number of whales killed over the next ten years. Other countries voted it down. Australia viewed it as legitimising commercial whaling, with concessions to whaling nations compromising the long-term goals to end whaling. Australia presented its own proposal that argued for:

  • an end to ‘scientific’ whaling and commercial whaling through objection
  • phasing out scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary within five years
  • prohibiting all whaling in sanctuaries
  • no new species approved for whaling and
  • improved consideration of threats and conservation status.

Australia’s role

Australia is one of the strongest anti-whaling countries. It is committed to non-lethal whale research using technologies such as satellite tagging and biopsy, to demonstrate that killing whales is unnecessary.

Australia initiated proceedings in 2010 in the International Court of Justice against Japan for breaching the Whaling Convention. Alleged breaches include conducting ‘scientific’ whaling with a lack of relevance to conservation and management of whale populations, and on such a scale as to constitute commercial whaling; hunting fin and humpback whales within the Southern Ocean Sanctuary; and breaching the CITES Convention through illegal trade.

Future outlook

While Australia has begun legal proceedings, the process and outcomes of this will be time-consuming, with Japan given until 2012 to lodge initial pleadings. This will not solve the IWC impasse and an IWC resolution to this issue is necessary. More anti-whaling nations may begin to consider compromises to regulate and reduce whaling. In the past 20 years Japan has firmly maintained its stance on whaling. One possible outcome is for Australia to develop an acceptable proposal which permits regulated coastal whaling in the three countries’ EEZs with a phase-out of whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. This may defuse the political situation and lead to significant reductions in whaling.

Whale sanctuaries

Library publications and key documents

International Whaling Commission (IWC) website, Commission information,

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, International protection of whales,