Whale populations face a variety of threats and despite being protected; five of the 13 great whales are endangered. For example, the Blue whales of the Antarctic have been fully protected for the last 40 years but now it is estimated there is less than 1% of previous population numbers as a result of over-hunting.
Whales have been hunted by people for many hundreds of years. This used to be on a relatively small scale with little impact on population numbers, but with the introduction of bigger ships, better weapons and the ability to process the animal on board, the number of hunted whales started to become unsustainable, with 50,000 whales being caught annually in the 1930s. Whale numbers declined so much that a regulatory body, called the International Whaling Commission, was set up in 1946. This led to a complete ban on commercial whale hunting in 1986 to allow populations to recover.
Aboriginal whale hunting is still legal in certain areas, such as Greenland, if the whales are hunted in the traditional way. This includes the use of kayaks and traditional weapons. One of these weapons is an inflated seal skin which is attached to the harpoon so that the float provides resistance and the whale cannot dive down. Aboriginal whale hunters can only catch a few whales per year legally.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is an international body responsible for setting sustainable whaling quotas, with more than 80 member nations. Since the 1986 ban, three nations have continued whaling in one form or other using legal loopholes. Japan hunt for research or ‘scientific whaling’; Norway registered an objection and so is not bound by the IWC rules; Iceland left the IWC for ten years but rejoined in 2002 without full commitment so they were not legally bound. During this time they resumed scientific whaling. They started commercial whaling again in 2006.
As well as hunting, whales are at risk from other human threats: global warming; pollution; ship strikes; noise pollution; naval sonar testing (causing mass stranding from ‘the bends’); and entanglement in fishing nets. Some whale species are highly protected so cannot be hunted but they are still affected by some or all of the other problems listed.
Fishing Impact on Whales
Even the largest whales are vulnerable to becoming entangled in fishing nets where they drown, or starve to death if gear becomes wrapped around or embedded in its mouth. The UN has banned the use of large-scale (defined as greater than 2.5km) driftnets, and the EU has placed a ban on driftnets of any lengths.