Modern whaling is much different than it was in the time of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In the nineteenth century, whale hunters would take handheld weapons to sea in a small boat and, when they caught a whale, they would bring it back to shore to convert it into products like oil, margarine, soap and corsets. This changed early in the twentieth century, though, with technological advances including harpoons and what the whaling industry called a factory ship. These large factory ships are so named because they are essentially factories at sea – they allowed whalers to process their catches on a ship and thus the whalers did not have to make a return trip to land each time they caught a whale. After a few decades of this increased productivity, though, the whalers realized that they were harming the global whale population by killing more whales than were being born.
In 1946, the world’s whaling nations signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in an attempt to preserve the whale population for the benefit of the whaling industry. As time passed, though, the killing of whales drew strong criticism from individuals and nonprofit organizations like Greenpeace. Today, due to this anti-whaling sentiment, as well as dramatic decreases in demand for products made from whales, there are only a few countries that continue to hunt whales. Japan, Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and some smaller nations combine to kill approximately 2000 whales each year. It is Japan’s whaling program that has received the most attention in recent years.
In the 1980s, ICRW members, including Japan, agreed to a ban on commercial whaling (essentially, killing whales and selling the products to generate revenue). However, the members also agreed to allow what they called scientific whaling to continue. As the name suggests, this is the killing of whales for the purpose of advancing scientific knowledge. Shortly after the ban on commercial whaling went into effect, Japan began a program of what it labeled scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. In 2010, Australia sued Japan at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), arguing that Japan’s program was actually not for scientific purposes, but was instead a cover for a commercial whaling program. The Court ruled that Japan’s whaling program in the Antarctic was illegal and ordered Japan to cease the program. However, the ruling left open the opportunity for Japan to redesign its program and resume whaling in the future. Japan has already stated it will do so, beginning in the 2015-16 whaling season.
While the case at the ICJ was proceeding, a Japanese whaling company sued Sea Shepherd, the environmental protection non-profit organization that is shown in the popular television series Whale Wars. Sea Shepherd sends its own ships to the Southern Ocean with the intent of interfering with the Japanese whalers. The whalers’ lawsuit alleged that Sea Shepherd’s acts are illegal and that its team members are pirates. The most current ruling in the American court system was not in Sea Shepherd’s favor, but the organization has effectively moved its operations from the United States to Australia. Thus, despite major lawsuits, the future of whaling remains highly uncertain.