Dear EarthTalk: What is the current status of whales? How effective is the International Whaling Commission and which countries are involved in illegal whaling?
—Jonathan Wingate, Yulee, Fla.
Some larger whale species have been recovering since the dark days before the whaling industry was regulated, but the majority of cetaceans—that is, the distinct order of marine mammals consisting of whales, dolphins and porpoises—are in decline, with some likely headed for extinction in the near term.
According to data collected by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains a “Red List” of threatened or endangered species, two of the largest whale species, humpbacks and southern rights, have rebounded since 1982 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling. Based on IUCN’s 2008 survey of cetaceans, both species, while still threatened, were upgraded from “Vulnerable” to “Least Concern” status on the Red List. “Humpbacks and southern right whales are making a comeback in much of their range mainly because they have been protected from commercial hunting,” says Randall Reeves, IUCN’s assessment leader. “This is a great conservation success and clearly shows what needs to be done to ensure these ocean giants survive.”
But other cetaceans haven’t fared so well. Almost a third of the world’s 80-plus cetacean species had their Red List status changed based on the IUCN’s 2008 assessment, with the vast majority now considered at greater risk than before. Overall, nearly a quarter of cetacean species are considered threatened, and of those, more than 10 percent (nine species) are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered, the highest categories of threat. Reeves says that the real situation could be much worse, as researchers could not obtain enough data on more than half of the world's cetacean species to properly classify their status.
While commercial whaling is what first put cetaceans at risk—the IWC’s 1982 moratorium greatly reduced stress on many species—other threats loom larger than ever: Whales the world over withstand ship strikes, habitat deterioration and declining prey. And the smaller cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and small whales) often drown in huge fishing nets that trawl the ocean scooping up everything in their path.
And of course commercial whaling still goes on despite the moratorium. Norway, Even with its IWC membership, disregards the moratorium and resumed commercial whaling in 1994. Iceland, which initially withdrew from the IWC over the moratorium, began commercial whaling again in 2006. Japan claims to hunt whales for scientific research purposes—but critics say this is just a front to obtain and sell whale meat under the false pretense of species counts. Whalers from several nations, including the U.S., hunt limited amounts of cetaceans for subsistence purposes, but these numbers are very small.
The IWC is a voluntary organization not backed up by any treaty, so its ability to regulate whaling is limited. Perhaps the biggest factor in nations’ willingness to honor the moratorium is the court of public opinion; awareness of the plight of cetaceans has skyrocketed since the 1960s when environmental groups like Greenpeace first began publicizing the threats faced by the largest creatures on the planet. Today “Save the Whales” might seem like a cliché from bygone days, but with so many cetacean species in decline, it just might be a more needed environmental battle cry than ever before.
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