International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946)

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International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946)

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1949 following the inaugural International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which took place in Washington, D.C., in 1946. Many nations have membership in the IWC, which primarily sets quotas for whales . The purpose of these quotas is twofold: they are intended to protect the whale species from extinction while allowing a limited whaling industry. In recent times, however, the IWC has come under attack. The vast majority of nations in the Commission have come to oppose whaling of any kind and object to the IWC's practice of establishing quotas. Furthermore, some nationsprincipally Iceland, Japan, and Norwaywish to protect their traditional whaling industries and are against the quotas set by the IWC. With two such divergent factions opposing the IWC, its future is as doubtful as that of the whales.

Since its inception, the Commission has had difficulty implementing its regulations and gaining approval for its recommendations. In the meantime whale populations have continued to dwindle. In its original design, the IWC consisted of two sub-committees, one scientific and the other technical. Any recommendation that the scientific committee put forth was subject to the politicized technical committee before final approval. The technical committee evaluated the recommendation and changed it if it was not politically or economically viable; essentially, the scientific committee's recommendations have often been rendered powerless. Furthermore, any nation that has decided an IWC recommendation was not in its best interest could have dismissed it by simply registering an objection. In the 1970s this gridlock and inaction attracted public scrutiny; people objected to the IWC's failure to protect the world's whales. Thus in 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment voted overwhelmingly to stop commercial whaling.

Nevertheless, the IWC retained some control over the whaling industry. In 1974 the Commission attempted to bring scientific research to management strategies in its "New Management Procedure." The IWC assessed whale populations with finer resolution, scrutinizing each species to see if it could be hunted and not die out. It classified whales as either "initial management stocks" (harvestable), "sustained management stocks" (harvestable), or "protection stocks" (unharvestable). While these classifications were necessary for effective management, much was unknown about whale population ecology , and quota estimates contained high levels of uncertainty.

Since the 1970s, public pressure has caused many nations in the IWC to oppose whale hunting of any kind. At first, one or two nations proposed a whaling moratorium each year. Both pro- and anti-whaling countries began to encourage new IWC members to vote for their respective positions, thus dividing the Commission. In 1982, the IWC enacted a limited moratorium on commercial whaling, to be in effect from 1986 until 1992. During that time it would thoroughly assess whale stocks and afterward allow whaling to resume for selected species and areas. Norway and Japan, however, attained special permits for whaling for scientific research: they continued to catch approximately 400 whales per year, and the meat was sold to restaurants. Then in 1992the year when whaling was supposed to have resumedmany nations voted to extend the moratorium. Iceland, Norway, and Japan objected strongly to what they saw as an infringement on their traditional industries and eating customs. Iceland subsequently left the IWC, and Japan and Norway have threatened to follow. These countries intend to resume their whaling programs. Members of the IWC are torn between accommodating these nations in some way and protecting the whales, and amid such controversy it is unlikely that the Commission can continue in its present mission.

Although the IWC has not been able to marshall its scientific advances or enforce its own regulations in managing whaling, it is broadening its original mission. The Commission may begin to govern the hunting of small cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoises, which are believed to suffer from overhunting .

[David A. Duffus and Andrea Gacki ]



Burton, R. The Life and Death of Whales. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd., 1980.

Kellog, R. The International Whaling Commission. International Technical Conference on Conservation of Living Resources of the Sea. New York: United Nations Publications, 1955.


Holt, S. J. "Let's All Go Whaling." The Ecologist 15 (1985): 113124. Pollack, A. "Commission to Save Whales Endangered, Too." The New York Times, May 18, 1993, B8.

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International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946)

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International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946)