This overview discusses the origin of the International Whaling Commission as a regulatory body to manage the whaling industry. As whale populations decreased in the latter part of the 20th century, the IWC took on the role of conservation, which included the implementation of a moratorium on whaling and the designation of ocean sanctuaries.
In the early twentieth century, the development of the modern whaling industry, through steam engines and exploding harpoon guns, led whale populations almost to the brink of extinction. In 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was created to oversee management of the whaling industry worldwide and to provide for the conservation of whales. The ICRW imposed regulations for hunting species of whales determined to need protection and set open and closed seasons and waters for hunting. The Convention established the IWC to carry out its mission. Its explicit objectives were, and remain, to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and the orderly development of the whaling industry.
In its first twenty years the IWC focused on managing the business aspects of whaling. In the late 1960’s, this focus shifted to include a strong conservation ethic, following the depletion of several major whale populations.
In the 1970’s a number of non-whaling and anti-whaling nations joined the IWC and eventually gained a majority over the number of pro-whaling nations. Specifically, the United States, which was previously considered a major whaling force, became a strong anti-whaling component of the IWC. These nations pushed for a moratorium, or halt, which was put into effect in 1986. This indefinite moratorium on commercial whaling was implemented as an effort to properly determine the status of whale populations and give depleted populations an opportunity to recover. The whaling nations were granted a three-year phase-out period to gradually bring their practices to an end.
Under the moratorium, only two types of whaling are legally permitted, subsistence and scientific whaling. Subsistence whaling is the taking of a limited number of whales by certain indigenous peoples for their own use. Scientific whaling is the regulated taking of whales that are not considered to be threatened or endangered for the purpose of furthering our knowledge about whales.
The IWC has also designated specific areas of the ocean as ocean sanctuaries, where whales may not be hunted even if the moratorium should be lifted. The Indian Ocean, parts of the Pacific Ocean off the Mexican coast, and most of the ocean waters of the Southern Hemisphere have been designated as whale sanctuaries. As a result of the moratorium and sanctuaries, some species have begun to return to acceptable numbers but others are still rare and endangered. Only the small minke whale exists in populations great enough for sustainable whaling to be considered.
The IWC can only regulate whaling with the consent of each party to the Convention. When the IWC makes an amendment, any state can object to the amendment within ninety days, and it will not be bound by the amendment. Since the ban went into effect, several pro-whaling nations including Iceland, Norway and Japan have expressed their desire to continue hunting some species of whales. Some of these nations have withdrawn from the IWC; others are no longer honoring the moratorium. These nations continue to engage in whaling. As a result, the future of the IWC is shaky. It is likely that the IWC will have to reform its policies in order to ensure further protection of the whales.