June 20, 2022

40 Years of the whaling moratorium: lessons for the future of the oceans (1/2)

Camille Rondeau Saint-Jean

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the adoption of a whaling moratorium by the International Whaling Commission. While annual catches of several whale species peaked at 75,000 in all seas of the world in the mid-20th century, fewer than 1,000 whales in total are now killed each year in the territorial waters of Iceland, Norway and Japan, the only countries continuing a commercial hunt.

Although hunting pressure decreased considerably in recent decades, most whale populations are still struggling to regain the abundance and demographic balance they enjoyed in the early 19th century, before industrial whaling started. It is estimated that several species experienced a 66 to 90% percent decline in their numbers at the height of whaling, and only humpback and southern right whale populations appear to be consistently increasing.

Despite the moratorium on whaling, these problematic recovery rates are still due to human activities: ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, climate change, noise and pollution from plastics and chemicalsare detrimental to the survival and reproduction of whales. As we address these issues to ensure the future of whale populations and the health of marine ecosystems, what can we learn from the factors that led to the successful abolition of whaling in most countries in 1982?

Scientific data on whale age, reproduction, migration, and feeding have been piling up since 1925, when the first scientific delegation joined a whaling station in Antarctica. In the early 1960s, the advent of scientific computers allowed statisticians to develop mathematical models that finally proved beyond any doubt that whaling had a catastrophic impact on whale populations. Yet, the whaling industry turned a blind eye as long as whaling was making huge profits and providing irreplaceable lubricants and food fats for many countries.

The efforts of environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Project Ahab in the early 1970s undoubtedly contributed to making the hunt unacceptable to the eyes of the public. At the same time, the album Songs of the Humpback Whale, recorded by bioacousticians Roger and Katharine Payne, sold 125,000 copies and awakened an unprecedented wave of empathy for cetaceans. These sentiments may have helped tip the balance of politics within the International Whaling Commission.

By this time, hunting yields had declined due to the collapse of populations, to the point where most whaling expeditions were no longer profitable. At the same time, new, cheaper, and more accessible products could now replace those originally derived from whales: petroleum as fuel and industrial lubricant, vegetable oils for soaps and margarine, plastic for everyday items once made of baleen. By 1982, only seven countries out of 32 in the International Whaling Commission were still in favor of the hunt, and the moratorium was adopted. In other words, although scientific data and public opinion contributed to the abolition of whaling, it was the loss of profitability that led to the end of this industry.

Forty years later, what can we learn from this breakthrough for whale conservation at a time when solutions are urgently needed to mitigate the impact of human activities on marine ecosystems? What is Whale Seeker's role in this mission? This will be the subject of our next blog post!


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