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A Closer Look At Whaling - Into The Wild Blog - Frontier

22 May 2018 14:20 PM

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons | Mr. Sean Linehan

Edited with Permission by Frontier

Whaling is regarded as a barbaric practice in many parts of the world, whereas in others it’s considered a mainstream form of hunting or sport. In this article we take a look back at the history of whaling, the ways in which it is currently carried out and the implications this has for marine species as well as for humans. 


Part I – A History of Whaling

Whale hunting can be traced back to as early as 3,000 B.C. During these times, it was a highly competitive and lucrative business all over the world, however now it is a less common practice.

Through ‘hunting events’ cetaceans are usually killed in a forceful and inhumane manner; using weapons such as spears and grenade harpoon cannons. A wide variety of different species can become the target of whalers, including: sei whales, Bryde’s whales, minke whales, fin whales and sperm whales; and in the past, pilot whales that we study here in Tenerife were also a target species.

In the 18th and 19th century whale hunting already had great precedence in the countries involved, however as technologies advanced, so did the rate of kills. By the 20th century, in some countries where whaling was accepted and applauded, hunting efforts were expanded upon by the introduction of factory ships - these allowed the whales to be hunted in much larger numbers than before. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) soon implemented a ban in 1986 making it illegal to practise the ‘sport’ of whaling. However some countries refused. Even in the 21st century, with more research being conducted into the importance of such species which occupy the higher trophic levels, and worldwide teaching of such importance to younger generations, it is still a recognised ‘sport’ in Japan, Norway and Iceland.

In the past, targeted individuals were hunted for oils, meat, body parts (i.e. fins) and in some cases marine parks/dolphinariums (but only the ‘pretty’ ones made the cut, of course!)*

*All cetaceans are pretty!


Part II – How Whaling Works

It is only a recent development in whaling that the cetaceans are granted a quick death. In the past, non-explosive methods were used - these weapons were called ‘cold’ weapons and included the use of spears. It was only in the 1980s that the Norwegians developed a new, quicker way of killing whales, which involved the use of explosives to accelerate a harpoon toward the individuals.

Based on most recent methods used by Japanese whalers, here is a brief outline of how the whaling process works nowadays...


- One large boat is used, that serves as a home base and ‘research’ station for the whaling team

- Multiple other, smaller boats known as ‘catcher boats’ are also used


- Each of the catcher boats are equipped with a 30 gram penthrite grenade-armed harpoon cannon (one of the world’s most powerful explosives)

- Each boat is equipped with 2 winches for hoisting the individuals up onto the boat deck

- Each vessel also has an on-board whaling sonar system

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons | Customs & Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia


- The sonar systems are used to detect cetaceans in the distance

- The cohort moves toward the individual(s)

- The individuals are surrounded by the catcher boats with no way out

- One harpoon is released from one of the cannons on a catcher boat

- If this harpoon misses, doesn’t stick properly or causes a prolonged death a second catcher boat releases its harpoon to complete the kill

- Once killed, the individuals are hoisted aboard by the use of the winches

- Once on the vessel, the individuals are skinned of any ‘useful’ materials, such as their fins

- The meat is then sold to markets and eaten by humans (depending on the absence of obvious diseases)


Part III – What does Whaling Mean for the Target Species & Humans?

Species status:

Approximately 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales were killed each year within the Southern Ocean Sanctuary alone, before such activity was criminalised by the International Court of Justice. With this, the ban on whaling was also enforced.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons | John Nathan Cobb

Just after the implementation of this ban in 1986, many of the once abundant species were classed as ‘endangered’. It wasn’t until a decade after this, that the populations of cetaceans such as pilot whales, Byde’s whales and sei whales have begun to steadily increase to a stable population size; returning the species’ status back to normal(ish). 

Whalers are also required to provide quantitative data of their catches to the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). However, despite agreements between them and the whalers, this does not always occur with complete accuracy, and numbers can be sent in which are falsified. This makes it more difficult to approximate the population sizes of these species.

Human implications:

The ‘sport’ of whaling nowadays is mainly used to acquire cetacean meat, which, in some countries is classed as a delicacy. This, however, also comes with risks for human consumers, as cetaceans are higher up in the food chain than most marine organisms. Toxins released into the water (through the breakdown of unnatural materials such as plastics) are acquired by plankton (producers); then their predators - fish (primary consumers) and eventually by cetaceans (tertiary consumers). This makes cetacean meat more toxic for consumption, causing a whole new list of risks and possible illnesses. The movement of such toxins through the food chain is known as bio-accumulation.

Overall, in my opinion, and I’m sure I share the same as many others in this field of science, whaling must be stopped! It is one of the main contributors to the decline in population numbers of large cetaceans and is the most influential direct human impact we have upon these creatures.

By Tinessa Patel - Research Officer | Tenerife Whale & Dolphin Conservation

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