Whaling is the hunting of whales to obtain their usable products such as meat, oil, and blubber. Its earliest forms date to at least circa 3000 BC. Various coastal communities have long histories of subsistence whaling and harvesting beached whales.

History of Antarctic whaling

Etching of a whaling crew battling a whale

Although prehistoric hunting and gathering is generally considered to have had little ecological impact, early whaling in the Arctic may have altered freshwater ecology.

Industrial whaling emerged with organized fleets in the 17th century, followed soon after by competitive national whaling industries operating heavily in Antarctic waters in the 18th and 19th centuries. The development of modern whaling techniques was spurred in the 19th century by the increase in demand for whale oil, sometimes known as "Train Oils" and in the 20th century by a demand for margarine and later whale meat.

In the early 20th century South Georgia Island experienced a rush of economic activity and settlement. Starting in December 1904, an Argentine company, Compañía Argentina de Pesca, operating on a British lease, established a base on the island and were joined by British whaling companies shortly thereafter. South Georgia soon became the world's largest whaling center, with shore bases all around the island's coastline. The nations represented included Argentina, the United Kingdom, Norway, South Africa, and Japan.

During the Second World War, most of the Antarctic whaling stations were closed due to the British and Norwegian whaling factories being destroyed by German raiders, while the ships that survived were called up to serve under Allied command.

The introduction of factory ships along with the concept of whale harvesting by the late 1930s led to more than 50,000 whales being slaughtered annually. Consequently, whale stocks around the world became dangerously depleted and many species of whales were in danger of extinction.

Creation of the International Whaling Commission

IWC Logo

International cooperation on whaling regulation began in 1931 and culminated in the signing of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in 1946. Its aim was to: "Provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry."

The 1970s saw the beginning of the global anti-whaling movement. In 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm adopted a proposal that recommended a ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling to allow whale stocks to recover. The reports of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1977 and 1981 identified many species of whales as being in danger of extinction.

At the same time, a number of non-whaling and anti-whaling states began to join the IWC and eventually gained a majority over the whaling nations. Some countries who were previously major whaling forces, like the United States, became strong proponents of the anti-whaling cause. These nations called for the IWC to reform its policies and to incorporate newly discovered scientific data regarding whales in its proposed regulations.

On 23 July 1982, members of the IWC voted by the necessary three-quarters majority to implement a pause on commercial whaling. Four years later, 1986, it banned commercial whaling completely.

Modern Era

Whale oil is used little today and modern commercial whaling is primarily done for food. The usage of whale products has somewhat reversed from the early days, with meat being the primary product of sale, and blubber being rendered down mostly to cheap industrial products such as animal feed.

Contemporary whaling is subject to intense debate. Pro-whaling countries, notably Iceland, Japan, and Norway, wish to lift the ban on certain whale stocks for hunting. Anti-whaling countries such as Westarctica strongly oppose lifting the ban and have advocated against the pro-whaling governments. As the moratorium applies only to commercial whaling, scientific-research and aboriginal-subsistence whaling is still permitted; however, many pro-whaling nations use scientific programs as a disguise for their continued commercial whaling activities. Japan is among the worst offenders.

Modern whaling in Antarctic waters

Main article: Whaling in Japan

The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was established in 1994 covering an area of 50 million square kilometers surrounding the continent of Antarctica where the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has banned all types of commercial whaling.

Despite this ban and the international outcry that has resulted, Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) has continued to hunt whales inside the Sanctuary by claiming their slaughter of whales (including endangered whales) is an approved scientific activity. Japan has taken the position that while some whale species it harvests are threatened, many are not.

Map of global whale sanctuaries

Some conservation groups such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society claim Japan's whaling operations are conducted in violation of the IWC charter, arguing that Japan's self-imposed annual quota of 1000 whale kills for research is not really scientific activity, but rather a veil to cover commercial fishing operations as whale meat ends up being sold in Japanese markets.

The Japanese government argues that the refusal of anti-whaling nations to accept simple head counts of whale population as a measure of recovery of whale species justifies its continuing slaughter of whales.