Whaling, International Convention for the Regulation of

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Whaling, International Convention for the Regulation of


The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling is an international agreement in effect since 1948 designed to make commercial whaling a sustainable practice. It established the International Whaling Commission, a British-based international regulatory body, which governs the conduct of whaling throughout the world.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

In December 1946, longstanding efforts by the world’s whaling nations to exert control over the whaling industry and protect against over-hunting produced the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). Originally signed by 15 nations in Washington, D.C., on December 2, it came into effect nearly two years later, on November 10, 1948.

The purpose of the convention was “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.” But the interests of the whaling industry lay at the heart of the convention. As Article V of the agreement stipulates, while the conventionss intent is “to provide for the conservation, development, and optimum utilization of the whale resources,” it must take into consideration “the interests of the consumers of whale products and the whaling industry.”

The convention established the 14-nation International Whaling Commission (IWC), which was empowered to regulate the whaling industry. But from the outset, the International Whaling Commission was undermined. For the first quarter century of its existence, it tolerated whaling at unsustainable levels, allowing many of the largest species to decline precipitously.

As such, by the late 1960s whaling had started to become a campaign issue for environmentalists and creep into wider public consciousness in western nations. Indeed, whale numbers fell so dramatically that in 1972, the United States called for a 10-year moratorium on all commercial whaling. When the moratorium was voted down in 1972, and again a year later, activists called on a boycott of goods from the principal whaling nations—Norway, Iceland, Japan, and the Soviet Union.

In 1974, the IWC endorsed the New Management Procedure—a United States-backed Australian plan—which banned whaling of all over-exploited stocks but permitted commercial catches of other species at sustainable levels. This was heralded as a great compromise, at once satisfying IWC members from non-whaling nations against the excessive size of earlier whale quotas, as well as whaling nations opposed to a moratorium on commercial whaling. It took effect from the 1975–1976 whaling season.

The success of the New Management Procedure, however, did not allay the efforts of environmentalists and non-whaling nations, who continued to seek a complete commercial moratorium. Exploiting the fact that any nation can accept the 1946 convention and become an equal voting member of the IWC, anti-whaling nations tipped the IWC balance in their own favor by recruiting additional non-whaling nations to the commission—increasing its membership from the original 14 to 40. In 1982, the newly enlarged IWC passed a moratorium on all commercial whaling, which came into effect in 1986.

Nevertheless, Norway, the Soviet Union, and later, Iceland registered objections to the moratorium and so were not bound by it. Japan also registered an objection, but this was withdrawn in 1987 on the threat of U.S. sanctions. All these nations continued to fish for limited numbers of whales under the semblance of scientific


INTERNATIONAL WHALING COMMISSION: An international body established ICRW to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.

SUSTAINABLE WHALING: The process by which a limited number of whales from thriving species, such as the minke, are culled each year.

WHALE MEAT: A traditional food in Japan as well as in northern high-latitude nations such as Norway.

research, while continuing to sell whale products on the commercial market.

Finally, in June 2006, the International Whaling Commission meeting backed a resolution calling for the eventual return of commercial whaling by a majority of just one vote. Although this did not signal the overturning of the 20-year-old moratorium—for that a three-quarters majority would have been necessary—it instilled the confidence in Japan, Norway, and Iceland to resume commercial whaling in direct contravention of it.

Impacts and Issues

The IWC moratorium on commercial whaling has led to repeated accusations from pro-whaling nations that the organization’s founding principles—to regulate commercial whaling—have been deviated from and undermined. Moreover, pro-whaling nations have accused the IWC of basing its refusal to allow sustainable whaling upon political and emotional factors, rather than scientific knowledge. They argue the IWC has swayed from its original purpose and is utilizing the guise of conservation to grant whales absolute protection.

Just as the ranks of the IWC were filled—and thus influenced—in the 1970s with nations sympathetic to anti-whaling, so pro-whaling nations have enlisted allies on the IWC with a view to overturning the moratorium. This has led to accusations of vote-buying—where aid has been offered to poorer countries in return for them joining the IWC and supporting pro-whaling positions—particularly by Japan. Indeed, a look at recent pro-whaling IWC members-nations such as the Solomon Islands and Mongolia with no ostensible whaling interests (or even a coastline, as in landlocked Mongolia’s case, would seemingly attest to this. The Japanese Fisheries Ministry has paid a reputed $320 million in overseas aid to developing countries sympathetic to its whaling interests.

Seven of the 13 species of great whale, including the blue whale and the bowhead, are considered endangered. But several species—notably Minke whales—are abundant and whaling nations contend that they want to catch only such species. Taken in the context of existing whale stocks, they make a persuasive case: Norway counts 107,000 Minke whales in its economic waters, and Iceland 43,000. From this profusion, whose numbers grow at about 2 to 3% a year, Iceland takes just 38 whales and Norway 711.

Allegations that whaling is an inherently cruel form of hunting—as a minority of governments and most environmentalist groups maintain—is also open to question. For example, every Norwegian whaling expedition must by law include a qualified veterinarian and according to Norway’s government, these vets report that 90% of the whales killed by its fishermen die instantly (a grenade attached to the harpoon blows the whale’s brain apart), while the remaining 10% are dispatched swiftly with the use of a rifle.

Nevertheless, the actual need to hunt whales is also open to question. The whaling industry has been in decline for some 150 years as demand for its products—which once ranged from candles to cosmetics and engine lubricants—evaporated with the appearance of petrochemicals. All that is left of the commercial whaling business is the market for whale meat, but even Norwegians and Japanese are losing their appetite for what is considered an unfashionable meat, and both countries are left with surpluses of the meat each year.

Primary Source Connection

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling is an international agreement in effect since 1948 designed to make commercial whaling sustainable. It established the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a British-based international regulatory body, which governs the conduct of whaling throughout the world.

In addition to protecting species and biodiversity, the commission seeks to permit only sustainable whaling, the process by which a limited number of whales from thriving species, such as the minke, are culled each year.

Recent international controversies regarding whaling have the IWC searching for solutions that balance cultural practice with species protection.



The Governments whose duly authorised representatives have subscribed hereto,

Recognizing the interest of the nations of the world in safeguarding for future generations the great natural resources represented by the whale stocks;

Considering that the history of whaling has seen over-fishing of one area after another and of one species of whale after another to such a degree that it is essential to protect all species of whales from further over-fishing;

Recognizing that the whale stocks are susceptible of natural increases if whaling is properly regulated, and that increases in the size of whale stocks will permit increases in the number of whales which may be captured without endangering these natural resources;

Recognizing that it is in the common interest to achieve the optimum level of whale stocks as rapidly as possible without causing widespread economic and nutritional distress;

Recognizing that in the course of achieving these objectives, whaling operations should be confined to those species best able to sustain exploitation in order to give an interval for recovery to certain species of whales now depleted in numbers;

Desiring to establish a system of international regulation for the whale fisheries to ensure proper and effective conservation and development of whale stocks on the basis of the principles embodied in the provisions of the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling, signed in London on 8th June, 1937, and the protocols to that Agreement signed in London on 24th June, 1938, and 26th November, 1945; and

Having decided to conclude a convention to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry;

Have agreed as follows:

Article III

  1. The Contracting Governments agree to establish an International Whaling Commission, hereinafter referred to as the Commission, to be composed of one member from each Contracting Government. Each member shall have one vote and may be accompanied by one or more experts and advisers.
  2. The Commission shall elect from its own members a Chairman and Vice-Chairman and shall determine its own Rules of Procedure. Decisions of the Commission shall be taken by a simple majority of those members voting except that a three-fourths majority of those members voting shall be required for action in pursuance of Article V. The Rules of Procedure may provide for decisions otherwise than at meetings of the Commission.
  3. The Commission may appoint its own Secretary and staff.
  4. The Commission may set up, from among its own members and experts or advisers, such committees as it considers desirable to perform such functions as it may authorize.
  5. The expenses of each member of the Commission and of his experts and advisers shall be determined by his own Government.
  6. Recognizing that specialized agencies related to the United Nations will be concerned with the conservation and development of whale fisheries and the products arising therefrom and desiring to avoid duplication of functions, the Contracting Governments will consult among themselves within two years after the coming into force of this Convention to decide whether the Commission shall be brought within the framework of a specialized agency related to the United Nations.
  7. In the meantime the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland shall arrange, in consultation with the other Contracting Governments, to convene the first meeting of the Commission, and shall initiate the consultation referred to in paragraph 6 above.
  8. Subsequent meetings of the Commission shall be convened as the Commission may determine.

Article IV

  1. The Commission may either in collaboration with or through independent agencies of the Contracting Governments or other public or private agencies, establishments, or organizations, or independently; (a) encourage, recommend, or if necessary, organize studies and investigations relating to whales and whaling; (b)collect and analyze statistical information concerning the current condition and trend of the whale stocks and the effects of whaling activities thereon; (c)study, appraise, and disseminate information concerning methods of maintaining and increasing the populations of whale stocks.
  2. The Commission shall arrange for the publication of reports of its activities, and it may publish independently or in collaboration with the International Bureau for Whaling Statistics at Sandefjord in Norway and other organizations and agencies such reports as it deems appropriate, as well as statistical, scientific, and other pertinent information relating to whales and whaling.


  1. The Commission may amend from time to time the provisions of the Schedule by adopting regulations with respect to the conservation and utilization of whale resources, fixing (a) protected and unprotected species; (b) open and closed seasons; (c) open and closed waters, including the designation of sanctuary areas; (d) size limits for each species; (e) time, methods, and intensity of whaling (including the maximum catch of whales to be taken in any one season); (f) types and specifications of gear and apparatus and appliances which may be used; (g) methods of measurement; and (h) catch returns and other statistical and biological records.
  2. These amendments of the Schedule (a) shall be such as are necessary to carry out the objectives and purposes of this Convention and to provide for the conservation, development, and optimum utilization of the whale resources; (b) shall be based on scientific findings; (c) shall not involve restrictions on the number or nationality of factory ships or land stations, nor allocate specific quotas to any factory ship or land station or to any group of factory ships or land stations; and (d) shall take into consideration the interests of the consumers of whale products and the whaling industry.
  3. Each of such amendments shall become effective with respect to the Contracting Governments ninety days following notification of the amendment by the Commission to each of the Contracting Governments, except that (a) if any Government presents to the Commission objection to any amendment prior to the expiration of this ninety-day period, the amendment shall not become effective with respect to any of the Governments for an additional ninety days; (b) thereupon, any other Contracting Government may present objection to the amendment at any time prior to the expiration of the additional ninety-day period, or before the expiration of thirty days from the date of receipt of the last objection received during such additional ninety-day period, whichever date shall be the later; and (c) thereafter, the amendment shall become effective with respect to all Contracting Governments which have not presented objection but shall not become effective with respect to any Government which has so objected until such date as the objection is withdrawn. The Commission shall notify each Contracting Government immediately upon receipt of each objection and withdrawal and each Contracting Government shall acknowledge receipt of all notifications of amendments, objections, and withdrawals.


See Also Endangered Species; Environmental Activism; Environmental Protests


Web Sites

Economist. “A Bloody War: Whaling—A Special Report.” December 30, 2003. “http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=El_NPTPDRN (accessed March 5, 2008.)

International Whaling Commission.http://www.iwcoffice.org/index.htm (accessed July 15, 2008).

Time. “The Hunt, the Furor.” August 2, 1993. “http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,978989,00.html (accessed March 6, 2008).

James Corbett

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