Cleethorpes: Sperm whale carcass washed up on beach

In the wave of cooperation that washed over the world in the wake of the world wars, 15 countries banded together to set up the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1946 to address the rapidly depleting numbers of the species.

In 1982, the body ruled there should be a moratorium on whaling for profit for all whale species and populations from 1986 onwards. The IWC has 88 members today, and the ban remains in place nearly half a century later.

Only three countries – Norway, Iceland and Japan – remain unwilling to sacrifice the market for whale meat and byproducts.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) – the leading UK charity dedicated to the protection of the animals – estimates almost 40,000 large whales have been killed by them since then. Over 100,000 dolphins, small whales and porpoises also died – many in harrowing fashion, as evidenced by the annual “grindadrap” hunt in the Faroe Islands. takes a look at what has happened to whale populations, as well as why and where the practice continues.

READ MORE: Tourists are driving Iceland's whale meat trade

Whalers in Japan

Whales can take hours to die even after a harpoon bearing explosives is shot into their head (Image: GETTY)

How has the whale population changed?

Whales roam throughout the world’s oceans, communicating with “complex and mysterious sounds” and have long amazed scientists and onlookers alike for their sheer size.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), they can exceed 100 feet in length and weigh up to 200 tonnes – as much as 33 elephants. The blue whale is the largest animal in existence.

Whales are, however, today an endangered species. Just before the modern whaling era began in 1890, there were an estimated 340,000 blue whales across the globe – this has now fallen below 25,000.

Across all species, the population has plunged from 2.5 million to 1.5 million in just over a century.

Blue whale

Blue whales are gigantic creatures, measuring up to three school buses long (Image: GETTY)

Invalid email

We use your sign-up to provide content in ways you've consented to and to improve our understanding of you. This may include adverts from us and 3rd parties based on our understanding. You can unsubscribe at any time. More info

Why are whales hunted?

Although the meat in itself was simply a means of sustenance – and is no longer an especially prized one – the other parts of a whale proved invaluable in the Industrial Revolution.

At the turn of the 20th century, whale oils were used for lighting, as well as for lubrication, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and foods such as margarine. Ambergris – found in the intestine of sperm whales – is still used to make perfume to this day.

At commercial whaling’s peak in the Sixties, 80,000 were hunted and killed each year.

Since then, this annual death toll has declined precipitously to around 1,000, but has not reached zero because of just three holdout countries.

Why do Japan, Norway and Iceland still do it?

Whalers armed with explosive-tipped harpoons still operate from ports in Japan, Iceland and Norway. 

Danny Groves, head of communications at WDC, told that whaling was simply “cruel and pointless”. He said: “There is little appetite for the meat in any of the countries and large amounts of it ends up in frozen stockpiles. 

“As WDC had proved in recent weeks by exposing the cruelty inflicted during hunts in Iceland, a moving whale is difficult to kill from a moving vessel and some have taken nearly two hours to die. Many of the females are also pregnant.”

Since the Eighties, Japan purportedly only hunted whales in the name of science – although its traditional use of whale meat in cooking made this claim very dubious. In 2019, however, the country pulled out of the IWC and resumed issuing commercial whaling licenses.


    Norway kills the most whales each year out of the three – slaughtering 580 minke whales in 2022, the highest count since 2016. 

    The Scandinavian state was one of the few governments worldwide to register a formal objection to the 1986 ban, and continues to ignore it to export whale meat to Japan.

    In Iceland, whale meat is not part of the culinary custom, and the locals rarely eat it. Most of the minke whale catch is served in restaurants to tourists, while fin whale meat is almost entirely exported to Japan.

    The country does have a strong seafaring and fishing heritage, and pro-whaling interests have long reinforced this link, as well as advanced the misconception that whale populations need to be culled because they eat too many fish.

    Iceland allocates its whalers a quota to kill endangered fin whales, as well as smaller minkes, and still refuses to recognise the ban. 

    Last February, however, the Icelandic government announced that there was “little justification for authorising further whaling” after current permits expired at the end of 2023.

    Mr Groves added: “In recent years, concerns have also been raised about the health implications for eating whale meat, which can contain high levels of contaminants.

    “Whales help keep the ocean healthy, and a healthy ocean is vital in the fight against climate breakdown. We should be growing whale populations not killing them and storing them in freezers.”

    magnifier linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram