International Whaling Ban Goes into Effect

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling over the strong objections of some countries with whaling industries. The moratorium, which took effect four years later, was hailed as a victory by conservationists.

Summary of Event

On July 23, 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted to declare a worldwide moratorium, to begin on January 1, 1986, on the commercial hunting of all whales. The ban was passed over the strong objections of the eight nations that maintained whaling industries. The final vote was twenty-five to seven in favor of the moratorium, with five nations abstaining. The countries that maintained whaling industries at the time of the vote were Japan, the Soviet Union, Norway, Iceland, South Korea, Peru, Brazil, and Spain. Of these, all but Spain strongly opposed the ban and voted against it. The five nations that abstained were Chile, China, the Philippines, South Africa, and Switzerland. The moratorium was hailed as a victory by conservationists, who had advocated such a ban for many years to stem the drastic decline in whale populations. Whaling;international ban
Conservation;marine life
International Whaling Commission
[kw]International Whaling Ban Goes into Effect (Jan. 1, 1986)
[kw]Whaling Ban Goes into Effect, International (Jan. 1, 1986)
[kw]Ban Goes into Effect, International Whaling (Jan. 1, 1986)
Whaling;international ban
Conservation;marine life
International Whaling Commission
[g]World;Jan. 1, 1986: International Whaling Ban Goes into Effect[05970]
[c]Animals and endangered species;Jan. 1, 1986: International Whaling Ban Goes into Effect[05970]
[c]Trade and commerce;Jan. 1, 1986: International Whaling Ban Goes into Effect[05970]
Fleischer, Luis
Bridgewater, Peter
Hammond, Philip
Brundtland, Gro Harlem

The IWC was founded on December 2, 1946, in Washington, D.C., for the purpose of monitoring the whaling industry. The commission’s aims were to provide for the conservation of whale stocks, to encourage orderly development of the whaling industry, to encourage scientific studies relating to whales and whaling, to collect and analyze data on whale populations, and to study and distribute information concerning methods of maintaining and increasing the populations of whale stocks.

The main responsibilities of the IWC were to review and to revise as needed the measures regulating the conduct of the international whaling industry. These measures could include providing for the complete protection of certain endangered whale species, designating certain geographic areas as whale sanctuaries, setting limits on the maximum numbers of whales that could be killed in any one season, deciding on the opening and closing of seasons for whaling, setting limits on the size of whales that could be killed, and prohibiting the capture of whale calves and female whales accompanied by calves. The commission also encouraged, coordinated, funded, and published the results of whale research and promoted studies into related matters such as the humaneness of killing methods.

One of the IWC’s duties was to establish management policies to keep all whale stocks at levels that would provide the whaling industry with the greatest long-term harvests. Because of the difficulties of determining the different whale populations, the IWC could not be confident that it had set catch limits low enough for whale stocks to maintain their population levels. As of the 1970’s, the commission instituted a number of measures to improve the situation, among them regulations on killing methods, a sanctuary in the Indian Ocean, a prohibition on factory ships, and lowered catch quotas for some species. These measures helped, but when the worldwide whale population continued to decline, it became clear that a total ban on commercial whaling was necessary, at least until accurate population studies could be carried out.

The moratorium that began in 1986 was imposed to prevent the extinction of whale populations and to protect remaining whale stocks while the IWC’s Scientific Committee tried to assess the status of various whale populations. One important exception to the ban was a provision for subsistence whaling from small vessels or from beaches by aboriginal communities. Countries with aboriginal populations that were permitted subsistence whaling included Denmark, the Russian Federation, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United States.

One weakness in the ban was apparent from the start. The IWC had the ability to regulate the conduct only of the voluntary member nations of the organization; it had no authority to control the activities of nonmember nations. Moreover, under the rules of the IWC, any member country could formally object to restrictions placed on its activities and withdraw from the organization, at which point the commission had no further power to restrict that nation’s activities.

The IWC members in favor of the ban hoped that the whaling nations would go along with the overwhelming majority vote of the international organization. On November 9, 1982, however, five nations filed formal objections to the worldwide ban and indicated that they did not consider themselves bound by its provisions. The five nations were Japan, the Soviet Union, Chile, Norway, and Peru, but Japan was the only one among them that actually continued to operate a large-scale whaling fleet at that time. None of the five nations dropped out of the IWC, however, and none reinstituted full-scale hunting of whales. Peru withdrew its objection on July 22, 1983, and although Japan continued to oppose the ban, worldwide pressure gradually forced that nation to withdraw its formal objections. The objections of Norway and Russia, on the other hand, were never withdrawn, so the moratorium was not binding on those governments.

Another weakness in the ban came as a result of the original 1946 Whaling Convention, Whaling Convention (1946) which allowed any member government to grant permits for the sampling—that is, the killing—of whales for scientific research purposes. Several whaling nations granted scientific research permits to organizations within their borders and continued to kill whales for research purposes despite the ban on commercial hunting.

In 1985, Norway instituted a five-year program to study and monitor minke whales in the northeast Atlantic, and in 1994, it started a further three-year program that involved taking 127 minke whales. Similarly, Japan Japan;whaling embarked on a twelve-year research program in the Antarctic that included catching approximately 300 minke whales in 1994-1995. Environmental groups claimed that these so-called scientific studies were a cover for commercial whaling and simply a way to circumvent the ban. They claimed that after the “studies” the whales were used for commercial purposes, often winding up as food in restaurants and stores. This debate carried on into the early twenty-first century, as Japan continued to lobby for an end to the moratorium.


According to an August, 1994, report from the International Whaling Commission, in 1980, before the ban went into effect, 14,810 whales had been killed worldwide. In 1991, only 706 whales were killed. Thus the effect of the moratorium was to reduce commercial whaling from a major global industry to the killing of a few hundred whales each year. These results did not come about easily, and many member nations of the IWC did not consider the ban to be permanent and continued to argue that it should be lifted.

In July of 1990, at a meeting in Noordwijk, Holland, the IWC rejected a proposal by Japan, Norway, and Iceland to end the ban, confirming the organization’s commitment to the conservation of whales. Environmentalists, backed by Great Britain and the United States, argued that the ban had not been in effect long enough to permit a true evaluation of whale populations. On May 31, 1991, the IWC considered proposals that could have led to a partial lifting of the ban. Under these proposals, hunting would have been banned only for whale species judged to have been depleted by more than 54 percent; other species could have been hunted. Japan and the other whaling nations welcomed these ideas, but the proposals were rejected, and the ban on commercial whaling was continued.

When the commission met in Kyoto, Japan, in May of 1993, the moratorium showed signs of strain. Proponents of the ban faced strong opposition from whaling nations, who wanted it lifted or modified. Japan and Norway argued that the moratorium, put in place to revive stocks that had been depleted by decades of excessive whaling, was no longer needed for certain types of whales. The issue had shifted, however, to whether whales should be hunted at all, even if their numbers permitted. The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand argued that whaling should never resume. Norway announced that it would restart whaling in 1993 despite the moratorium, and in fact it did resume whaling that year in the face of international condemnation. The 1993 conference ended, however, with the IWC electing to maintain the ban.

The 46th annual meeting of the IWC, held in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in May, 1994, opened with an even stronger threat to the continuation of the ban. As a result, the commission accepted and endorsed a revised management procedure that would balance various conflicting requirements to ensure that the risk to individual stocks would not be seriously increased if commercial whaling were to resume.

The commission was under pressure from those nations, led by Japan and Norway, that wanted to resume commercial whaling. The whaling nations believed that sufficient progress had been achieved in the work of studying the whale populations and that a resumption of limited and strictly regulated commercial whaling should be possible. A majority of member countries argued that commercial whaling should not be allowed until firm evidence was gathered concerning the status of the stocks, guaranteed control and monitoring systems were in place, and greater humaneness in killing methods had been achieved. The 1994 meeting ended with the commission deciding that the worldwide ban on whaling would remain in force for at least one more year while work continued on the issues still in question.

Japan and Norway then began to seek scientific data to prove that commercial hunting of some species could be carried out without causing any threat to the species’ long-term survival. Both countries also continued to hunt limited numbers of whales for scientific research. Iceland formally resigned from the IWC, and Japan considered setting up its own whaling organization.

Some IWC member nations—notably the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand—continued to push for a permanent ban on commercial whaling. Public opinion in those countries increasingly regarded whales as special animals that should not be hunted for the food and other products they might yield. It was hoped that the disagreement between those nations with a tradition of whaling and whale-meat consumption and those that were not dependent on commercial whaling would at some point be resolved satisfactorily.

Throughout the late 1990’s and into the early twenty-first century, Japan continued to argue for expansion of “scientific” whaling and for an end to the moratorium. New IWC member states joined Japan in this effort, gradually eroding the conservation majorities. In 2005, votes to end the moratorium were narrowly defeated, and in 2006, the IWC narrowly passed a resolution expressing support for commercial whaling in its St. Kitts and Nevis Declaration. Whaling;international ban
Conservation;marine life
International Whaling Commission

Further Reading

  • Evans, Peter G. H. The Natural History of Whales and Dolphins. New York: Facts On File, 1987. Thorough presentation of information about whales and dolphins. Includes brief discussion of the IWC ban on whaling.
  • Friedheim, Robert L., ed. Toward a Sustainable Whaling Regime. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. Collection of essays explores the possibilities for establishing a viable international whaling regime.
  • Heazle, Michael. Scientific Uncertainty and the Politics of Whaling. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. Examines how the IWC shifted from an organization dedicated to the continuation of whaling to one attempting to ensure the protection of whales and how interpretations of scientific data have changed according to the organization’s interests. An academic, epistemological work.
  • Lemonick, Michael D. “The Hunt, the Furor.” Time, August 2, 1993, 42-46. Thorough article examines the controversy and issues surrounding the IWC ban on whaling. Discusses Norway’s defiance of the ban and predicts that other countries, such as Iceland and Japan, may soon follow.
  • Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Discusses important events in world history from an ecological perspective. Includes very brief discussion of the IWC ban on whaling.
  • Williams, Heathcote. Whale Nation. New York: Harmony Books, 1988. Presents whale-related information, stories, poems, and songs from cultures around the world. Includes brief discussion of the IWC ban on whaling.

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