Harpoon ship dragging two fin whales

The harpoon ship Hvalur 9 is seen transporting two Fin whales on Hvalfjordur fjord near the village of Midsandur, Iceland, some 70 km north of Reykjavik, on August 06, 2022.

(Photo by Sergei Gapon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Return of Whaling

The industry is on the cusp of winning a major victory over the global conservation movement that has fought for decades to bring this murderous practice to an end once and for all.

Whaling is seen as an evil of the past, memorialized in events like ritual recitations of Moby Dick. Or invented as a metaphor for the worst of humanity’s greed—the Tulkun hunts in Avatar: The Way of Water. But commercial whaling hasn’t actually stopped, it’s merely scaled back. Japan, Iceland, and Norway still engage in commercial whaling.

On May 9th, a spokesperson for the Japanese government announced that they were intending to set a hunting quota for fin whales. A week earlier, the Kangei Maru, a brand new, state of the art whaling factory ship, was launched. It’s almost four decades since the Japanese whaling industry felt the need for a new whaling mothership, and this one’s specifications will allow whalers to butcher fin whales on it. Plus, the KangeiMaru has the range and construction to work in Antarctic waters. Coincidentally, on exactly the same day as the Kangei Maru’s launch, a scientific paper was published, presenting the results of surveys conducted in one area of the Southern Ocean. The results suggest that there are around 50,000 fin whales in just that one site.

If the only way to regulate whaling internationally is under some gentlefolks’ non-binding agreements, how did commercial whaling almost disappear?

Then, on June 11th, the council of the Japanese Fisheries Agency announced a quota of 59 fin whales within the Japanese EEZ. On the same day, the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries issued a permit for a hunt of 128 fin whales by Hvalur, the Icelandic whaling company.

Fin whales are known—if they’re known at all—as being the second-largest of the great whales. Only blue whales are larger. Less well known is that they were also the whales hunted in the greatest numbers during industrial commercial whaling through the 20th Century. About 900,000 fin whales were killed across all ocean basins, nearly as many as the sum of all blue (~380,000), humpback (~250,000) and sei whales (~300,000) combined. Given their abundance and individual size, fins were where the real money was in high seas whaling.

This history is lost.

Most fin whales lived in the Southern Ocean, but they’re found throughout the polar and temperate regions of the world. Unlike humpback or right whales, they don’t engage in clearly defined annual migrations from feeding to breeding areas. They’re mostly offshore, beyond the reach of whale-watching operations. And they’re nowhere near as acrobatic as humpbacks. Fins don’t create their own PR value, the way that more visible and demonstrative whales do.

Currently, fin whales worldwide are categorized in the IUCN’s Red List as Vulnerable, one step down from Endangered, based on a review from 2018. However, a more recent (2023) IUCN review of fin whales in European waters listed them as being of Least Concern there. For the few places where data are available, most fin whale populations are increasing. Apart from the recent work showing about 50,000 whales in one small(ish) area of the Antarctic, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) lists about 40,000 fins in one part of the central North Atlantic (for 2015, so the estimate is almost a decade old). The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides estimates of around 7,000 off the east coast of North America, and 8,000 in the waters of California and Oregon. Added together, that’s over 100,000 fin whales—and it excludes most of the Southern Ocean, where fins are likely to be most abundant, and where other observations indicate that their numbers are on the rebound.

So, what about the Japanese whalers hunting fin whales? How can this happen? There are two international bodies primarily responsible for managing whaling internationally. The International Whaling Commission (IWC), oversees setting quotas for whaling, and the ways in which whaling is managed. At present, the IWC has quotas for commercial whaling set at zero, a moratorium that’s been in place since the mid-1980s. The other organization is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which regulates—as the name suggests—international trade in endangered species. Fin whales are listed under CITES Appendix I, meaning that they are judged to be threatened with extinction, so international trade in their products is prohibited. This is (more or less) based on the Red Listing of fin whales internationally as Vulnerable. Were that status to change, their CITES listing may well change in response.

Japan left the IWC at the end of 2018 and so is no longer bound by IWC regulations. There’s nothing stopping Japan from doing this under IWC rules. What about CITES? Japan has a reservation to the listing of fin whales, as do Iceland and Norway. So these nations are not bound by CITES provisions regarding fin whales, and are free to trade in their products. That’s why Hvalur hf., the Icelandic whaling company, has exported fin whale meat to Japan from the almost 1000 fin whales they’ve killed over the past 15 years.

So, if the only way to regulate whaling internationally is under some gentlefolks’ non-binding agreements, how did commercial whaling almost disappear? Whalers wiped out almost all populations of large whales, which played an important role. There wasn’t much left to hunt. But previously, the threat of US sanctions was also a factor. Under the Pelly Amendment of the US Fishermen's Protective Act, the Secretary of Commerce and/or the Secretary of the Interior, are required to let the President know if “nationals of a foreign country, directly or indirectly, are engaging in trade or taking which diminishes the effectiveness of any international program for endangered or threatened species.” This is supposedly an obligation, and it’s also meant to lead to a ban on importation of fisheries and wildlife products from that country. Needless to say, despite Japanese nationals obviously diminishing the effectiveness of the functioning of both the IWC and CITES, Japan has not been certified. Geopolitics trumps marine conservation.

There was rejoicing back in early 2019 when Japan appeared to be giving up on pelagic whaling. But Japan leaving the IWC was never “good news for whales,” as stated at the time by Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Japanese whalers now get to ignore IWC-based rules on how many whales can be killed, where they can be killed, and who observes that the killing takes place in the manner that is claimed—something that has always been a problem with whaling.

There is nothing to stop Japanese whalers returning to much larger-scale commercial whaling. They are on the cusp of their comprehensive victory over the conservation movement.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the date of the Japanese Fisheries Agency's June announcement.

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