International Whaling Commission Is Formed

The International Whaling Commission was established to regulate whaling and to ensure conservation of whales. While it was given little power to enforce its policies, as more nations became members and international opinion changed, the commission helped to regulate whaling and to prevent the extinction of several whale species.

Summary of Event

Whales have been hunted by humans for at least four thousand years. In the twentieth century, however, whales and whale hunting became subjects of widespread concern. At first, as whale stocks were depleted, such concern centered on the declining harvest. Later, whales came to be valued as integral parts of the planet’s biodiversity. Despite the obvious threat that overhunting presented to the whaling industry and despite the later interest in preserving the whale population, the international regulation required to assure whales’ continued existence proved difficult to achieve. The history of that effort is, in many ways, typical of international conservation efforts. At the heart of the effort to preserve the whales is the origin and history of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). International Whaling Commission
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946)
[kw]International Whaling Commission Is Formed (Dec. 2, 1946)
[kw]Whaling Commission Is Formed, International (Dec. 2, 1946)
[kw]Commission Is Formed, International Whaling (Dec. 2, 1946)
International Whaling Commission
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946)
[g]North America;Dec. 2, 1946: International Whaling Commission Is Formed[01900]
[g]United States;Dec. 2, 1946: International Whaling Commission Is Formed[01900]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 2, 1946: International Whaling Commission Is Formed[01900]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 2, 1946: International Whaling Commission Is Formed[01900]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 2, 1946: International Whaling Commission Is Formed[01900]
Bergersen, Birger
Dobson, A. T. A.
Kellogg, Remington

A number of attempts at regulation of whaling were made before the IWC was established in 1946. Nations attempted to control access to whales in their coastal waters and occasionally in adjacent seas. These attempts were not made to save whales but to reserve them for that nation’s whalers. Even if the efforts had been properly applied and successful, whale conservation would not have been served, because most whales are denizens of the open sea. Since Hugo Grotius argued for the freedom of the seas in the early seventeenth century, the resources of the open ocean were considered to be the property of whoever could harvest them. This principle exposed whales to extensive exploitation and was a serious problem for the regulation of whaling and conservation of whales well into the twentieth century.

The International Council for Exploration of the Sea International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES), an informal organization begun in 1902 to study and protect natural resources in marine habitats, made important early attempts to learn about whale stocks and the requirements for their conservation. ICES asked Norway to initiate a whaling statistics database, which became the information base for subsequent argument and action on the conservation of whales. The League of Nations attempted to bring some form of regulation to whaling during the 1930’s, and ICES ideas and proposals were instrumental in guiding the league’s efforts. All such efforts were unquestionably helpful in setting the stage for later conservation efforts, but nothing done early in the twentieth century seemed to slow international whaling. New equipment, including improved factory ships on which a whale could be completely processed, made whaling increasingly efficient. Only the decline of whale populations and the advent of two world wars slowed the slaughter.

Before World War II, the whaling nations became increasingly concerned about the intensive overhunting and the decline in whale stocks. Interest in establishing an international organization for the regulation of whaling grew. In 1944, in anticipation of the end of the war, a whaling protocol was established among several of the whaling nations. Most observers believed that the catch limits established by this protocol were too high and that the length set for the Antarctic whaling season was too long. In 1945, in London, the protocol was extended and amended, but there was little improvement. This lack of significant progress necessitated the 1946 meeting in Washington, D.C., at which the IWC was established.

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling of 1946 played out in the aftermath of the earlier attempts at international regulation. Their inadequacy, especially that of the most recent conferences, generated a sense of urgency in which the IWC could be established. Fifteen nations, all with active or historic whaling fleets, attended. Because the war had just ended, neither Japan nor Germany, both recently active in whaling, was included. The principal considerations on the agenda were the establishment of the regulations for future whaling seasons, including 1947 and 1948, and the creation of a permanent whaling commission for oversight of the industry and conservation of whales.

Article 3 of the convention created the IWC. The article followed a draft convention submitted by the United States fairly closely but diverged from the draft in important points. Membership was open to any nation subscribing to the convention, not simply whaling nations. Each member had one representative and one vote. A simple majority vote was required to pass any commission decision except an amendment of the schedule of whaling regulations, which required the approval of 75 percent of those voting. Any number of advisers could be employed by a nation, and though the advisers could not vote, they could address the commission before a vote. The commission elected its own chair and vice chair for three-year terms. An executive officer, the secretary, was appointed by the commission.

Several committees were established by Article 3, the most important of which was the Scientific Committee, which was charged with studying whales, establishing the state of whale populations, and recommending the appropriate levels of exploitation. Its membership consisted of individuals nominated by the national commissioners. There was no requirement of expertise for membership, but provision was made for advisers, presumably with expertise, to attend meetings and advise the committee, though the advisers could not vote. The U.S. draft convention suggested that the commission be associated with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The convention, however, chose not to affiliate the commission with any organization, though it would work with international organizations, including the United Nations, throughout its history.

Article 5 of the convention established the schedule of the regulations designed by the convention to conserve whales and build up stocks for future exploitation. The original schedule included restrictions on the total catch in a given season; minimum size limits on certain species; bans on taking calves, suckling whales, or females found with them; bans on taking any member of some species and on taking other species in certain areas; restrictions on the season length for Antarctic whaling, a requirement for inspectors on whaling ships and at land stations; and requirements that all parts of captured whales be used. Despite the fact that changing the schedule required a 75 percent vote, the schedule grew steadily in size and complexity.

Article 9, which dealt with enforcement, was one of the weaknesses of the convention. Enforcement was left to the government under whose jurisdiction an offending ship operated. In addition, the commission had no authority over countries that were not members of the IWC, and Article 10 made withdrawal from the commission a simple matter. If notice of an intent to withdraw was given before January 1, the withdrawal was effective on June 1 of the same year. No article dealt with a method for settling disputes between members.

Article 7 required that whaling statistics be sent to the Norwegian Bureau of International Whaling Statistics Bureau of International Whaling Statistics, Norwegian (BIWS). Article 8 established a system of scientific permits by which a nation would be allowed to take a number of whales beyond the established quota simply by reporting to the commission that it was taking them for scientific purposes. Critics believe that the permit system has been used by some nations to circumvent whaling quotas.

The document creating the IWC was signed by the fifteen representatives on December 2, 1946, and went into effect on November 10, 1948. With all of its imperfections, the IWC is judged by most observers to be a landmark in whale conservation and regulation, as well as in international regulation and cooperation generally.


The IWC was immediately bedeviled by problems common to international regulatory organizations. Insufficient funds and weak enforcement powers have been two of the most serious problems. In addition, several problems specific to the regulation of whaling have plagued commissioners. Information on the status of whale stocks has generally been fragmentary and debatable. Even when great whaling efforts produced fewer and smaller whales, a clear suggestion that the stocks were depleted, it was difficult to convince whaling companies and their governments that the whales needed protection.

The commission’s original charge included two assignments that often appeared to be at odds with each other. The IWC was to regulate whaling and conserve whales, but the organization was also to act in the best interest of the whaling nations. This dual mission resulted in a curious reversal of the commission’s regulatory posture. Early in the commission’s history, the best interest of whaling nations was given priority; later, whaling regulation and conservation of whales became the IWC’s focus.

In its early years, the IWC always set limits higher than its own Scientific Committee’s recommendation. The pressure for setting higher limits, exerted by the whaling members of the commission, continued despite the economic extinction of the blue whale, the fin whale, and the sei whale. Each species in turn was hunted until so few were sighted that the whalers had to turn to other whale species. This problem was confounded by the fact that the commission had no control over whaling nations that did not join the commission. These unregulated whalers weakened the attraction of responsible whaling for some members of the commission.

Another problem with regulation in the early years was the system by which annual limits were set, the blue whale unit (BWU). Used to determine quotas by equating all whales to the blue whale (1 blue = 2 fin = 2.5 humpbacks = 6 sei, for example), the BWU was among the earliest means of setting quotas for whalers. As whale populations shrank, the inability to regulate whaling according to species, age, and gender illustrated the worst aspects of the BWU. In 1972, the BWU was replaced by limits on individual species, but whale populations had already suffered tragically from the concept’s application.

Only when the most intensive whaling failed to turn up enough whales to pay for the effort were the warnings of the Scientific Committee heeded and limits set low enough to allow recovery of the beleaguered stocks. At the same time, the plight of the whales was being placed before an increasingly sympathetic public by various conservation groups. Under this new and growing public pressure, the IWC slowly changed from a “whalers’ club” to a whale-conservation organization. Increasingly restrictive limits on whaling resulted from this change: Certain areas, including the Indian Ocean, were declared sanctuaries within which no whaling was allowed, and in 1982 a moratorium was declared on all commercial whaling.

The moratorium and sanctuaries do not protect whales completely. Various commission members issued scientific permits to their whalers, allowing them to capture fairly large numbers of whales for scientific study. Others threatened withdrawal from or defiance of the commission. When Chile complained that the sanctuary violated its national waters, the Southern Hemisphere sanctuary was interrupted by an extension of whaling waters to 60 degrees south latitude off the west coast of South America. In addition, pressure to allow whaling outside the sanctuary increased with sanctuary establishment.

Despite its controversial career, the impact of the IWC has been appreciable. There are still those on both sides of the whaling issue calling for the IWC’s disbandment, but the commission has been successful in regulating whaling to allow the apparent recovery of some whale populations. The established sanctuaries and the moratorium bode well for the future of the whales. The IWC continues to struggle with important questions, perhaps the most critical of which is whether whaling should be eliminated as a human activity. That appears unlikely in the near future as some countries, particularly Japan, have strong whaling interests, pursued now under the title of “scientific whaling.” International Whaling Commission
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946)

Further Reading

  • Baskin, Yvonne. “Blue Behemoth Bounds Back.” BioScience 43 (October, 1993): 603-605. A news article reporting on whale population surveys. Suggests that blue whale populations are increasing in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Birnie, Patricia. “International Legal Issues in the Management and Protection of the Whale: A Review of Four Decades of Experience.” Natural Resources Journal 29 (Fall, 1989): 903-934. A good summary of the history of international efforts to save whaling and whales. Many references.
  • _______, ed. International Regulation of Whaling: From Conservation of Whaling to Conservation of Whales and Regulation of Whale Watching. New York: Oceana, 1985. A thorough two-volume history of the regulation of whaling. Includes the text of the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that created the IWC and many documents of importance to the history of whaling. Extensive bibliography.
  • Burton, Robert. The Life and Death of Whales. 2d ed. New York: Universe Books, 1980. A small, interesting book that describes whales, the history of whaling, and briefly, the regulation of whaling. Illustrations, index, and brief bibliography.
  • Friedheim, Robert L., ed. Toward a Sustainable Whaling Regime. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. Detailed study of the political, scientific, and environmental aspects of whaling regulation and the role of the International Whaling Commission in that regulation. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Horwood, Joseph. Biology and Exploitation of the Sei Whale. London: Croom Helm, 1987. Thorough and well-written outline of the sei whale’s biology and exploitation history. Considers the IWC in the sei whale context. Illustrations, index, and bibliography.
  • McHugh, J. L. “The Role and History of the International Whaling Commission.” In The Whale Problem: A Status Report, edited by William E. Schevill. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. A brief history of the IWC, its shortcomings, and its achievements. Illustrations, index, and many references.
  • Miles, Edward L., et al. “The International Whaling Commission (IWC): More Failure than Success?” In Environmental Regime Effectiveness: Confronting Theory with Evidence. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. Case study of the empirical effects of the IWC, arguing that it has been less effective in practice than is commonly believed. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Schmid, Karen. “Scientists Count a Rising Tide of Whales in the Sea.” Science 263 (January 7, 1994): 25-26. A news article reporting on the surveys that show an increase in several whale populations. Illustrations.
  • Tønnessen, J. N., and A. O. Johnsen. The History of Modern Whaling. Translated by R. I. Christophersen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. One of the most complete versions of the history of whaling and the creation of the IWC available. An interesting appendix of whaling statistics. Extensive bibliography and thorough index.

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