2. Have the whales been saved?

Posted: 10 October 2000

Author: Cassandra Phillips

Author Info: Cassandra Phillips is WWF International Treaties Co-ordinator (Whales and Antarctica).

The struggle to save the whales from the notorious over hunting by whalers of many nations, which reached its worst extent in the middle years of the last century, has not yet been completely won, but there have been some major victories, writes Cassandra Phillips.

Virtually all species of the "great whales" were disastrously depleted during the last 300 years, some of them (such as blue whales, northern and southern right whales, humpbacks, bowheads and grey whales) to the brink of extinction, some less severely. Now, since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) protected the most endangered species, culminating in its moratorium on all commercial whaling (in force since 1986), there is encouraging evidence that some populations of some species (such as Eastern Pacific gray whales and Southern right whales) are beginning to recover, even though most are not expected to build up to their pre-whaling numbers in the foreseeable future. Some populations, such as Southern hemisphere blue whales and Northern right whales have apparently failed to start recovering despite over 30 years of protection.

© J.D. Watt/WWF/Panda PhotosIn 1994, the IWC declared almost the whole of the Southern Ocean south of 40°S as a whale Sanctuary. This, together with the previously agreed Indian Ocean Sanctuary, permanently protects approximately one third of the world's oceans from whaling. With the Sanctuaries in place, large-scale whaling, with tens of thousands of whales being killed every year right up to the 1970s, is unlikely ever to be sanctioned in the future.

In spite of the moratorium and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, commercial whaling on minke whales is in practice increasing quite fast. The two remaining whaling countries, Norway and Japan, are increasing the numbers of whales hunted each year by exploiting legal loopholes. Thus seven years ago in 1993 Norway killed 226 minke whales from the NE Atlantic under their formal Objection to the moratorium, and Japan 330 minkes from the Antarctic for "scientific research"; while in 2000 Norway's self-awarded quota was 655 Minkes and Japan extended their "scientific" whaling to include two more species of whales and issued permits for a total of 600 whales. The IWC has been unable to prevent this escalation in commercial whaling in spite of passing Resolutions every year urging the whalers to respect the moratorium and the Sanctuary and to stop whaling.

In addition, the IWC still authorises what it labels "aboriginal/subsistence" whaling. A total of about 350 whales a year, of five different species, are hunted by mainly Arctic indigenous people for subsistence purposes.

Meanwhile, even without whaling, all whales face other threats from human activities such as entanglement in fishing gear. During the past 25 years, the by widespread use of driftnets and gillnets has caused the death of thousands, if not millions, of cetaceans. Other threats are ship collisions, global climate change, and chemical pollution. Evidence is growing that the effects of industrial chemicals and pesticide run-offs on cetaceans are potentially the gravest threats to their survival. Even low levels of contaminants can increase susceptibility to disease and decrease fertility. If this continues, it is possible that some apparently stable populations of long-lived whales and dolphins could crash suddenly with little warning.

See news item: Showdown for the whales