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Whales and whaling: facts and figures

10 july 2011, 16:28
The International Whaling Commission starts a four-day plenary meeting Monday on the British island of Jersey, with a bid to rid the deeply divided body of allegedly corrupt practices topping the agenda, AFP reports.

Here are some key details on how the IWC works, which whales are hunted and the countries that hunt them.


Set up in 1946, the IWC's 89 members are roughly divided between those that back whaling nations Japan, Iceland and Norway, and countries whose main priority is conservation of cetaceans, an order that includes 80-odd species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Pro-whaling nations include most of Asia, a number of Caribbean and African states, and Russia. Countries hostile to whaling, led by Australia, include the European Union (except Denmark), most English-speaking nations (including South Africa, Kenya and India), and all of South America.


In 1982 the IWC voted to implement a moratorium -- what it called a "pause" -- in the commercial hunting of whales.

The ban went into effect in 1986. Three countries -- Japan, Norway and Iceland -- have either defied the ban or used legal loopholes to resume hunting of several whale species.


Any IWC member can object to the moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Invoking this provision, Iceland harvested 38 whales in 2009, and Norway 536.

A country can also set its own "scientific permits" for whaling, ostensibly to further research on conservation. Under this rule, Japan harvested 1,004 whales in 2008-2009.

The IWC grants permits to indigenous peoples to carry out traditional and subsistence whaling. Native peoples in Russia, Greenland, Alaska and St. Vincent and the Grenadines all have quotas.


Every year whales, especially minke whales, get caught in fishing nets and die in coastal waters off of Japan and South Korea. Since 1996 both countries have reported these ostensibly accidental catches which, in the case of Japan, have steadily increased.

Over the 12 year up through 2008, each country has acknowledged more than 1,000 whales lost to by-catch. Products from these whales are sold openly in both countries, and DNA analysis suggests that the actual number killed may be twice as high.


The IWC regulates hunting of a dozen large whale species, including filter feeders and a few deep-diving "toothed" whales.

The size of global stocks, and how far they have declined, are simply not known, making it next to impossible to set scientifically-based catch quotas.

In recent years, the three whaling countries have mainly hunted six species in different waters around the world: Antarctic minke whales, which grow up to 10 meters (32 feet); Northern Hemisphere minke whales, up to 9 meters (30 feet); Fin whales, up to 24 meters (78 feet), 70 tonnes; Bryde's whale, up to 14 meters (46 feet); Sei whales, up to 16 meters (53 feet); Sperm whales, up to 15 meters (50 feet).


Commercial hunting and by-catch are not the only direct threat to whales. A lesser number are hit by ships, especially where migratory paths overlap with busy shipping lanes.

Other threats more difficult to quantify include: chemical pollution; noise pollution, especially from high-decibel military exercises and oil exploration; environmental degradation; climate change; over-exploitation of prey; ingestion and entaglement in marine debris.

More recently, scientists have argued that whale watching may also disturb the feeding, mating and migratory behaviour of some whales.


There are currently two major whale sanctuaries. One covering most of the Indian Ocean was created in 1979 following an initiative by The Seychelles, and is a breeding ground for many southern hemisphere cetaceans.

The Southern Ocean sanctuary, surrounding the continent of Antarctica, was proposed by France and set up in 1994. Its waters, teeming with marine life, serve as a feeding ground for more than a dozen whales species.

Japan has harvested nearly 10,000 whales there in the name of scientific research since 1982. For the first time, Japan earlier this year recalled its Antarctic whaling fleet a month ahead of schedule, citing harrassment and interference by militant environmentalist group Sea Shepherd.

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