Attempts at Regulation and Protection

In 1932–33, partly in response to the collapse of the whale-oil market, the first attempts were made to regulate and restrict the catch by international agreement. After World War II the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in Washington, D.C., by 17 nations, including all those operating in the Antarctic regions. The commission, which regulates most of the world's whaling activity, began in the 1960s to limit the number and species of whales that could be hunted.

In the subsequent years, environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace, became extremely involved in the attempt to stop whaling, shadowing whaling vessels and attempting to interfere with whalers. In 1982 the IWC voted a moratorium on commercial whaling, to take effect after the 1984–85 season. Exceptions to the moratorium generally have been made for native peoples, such as the Makah, who traditionally had hunted whales and used their meat as a major part of their diet. These regulations are not adhered to by all nations, including some members of the commission (which now has 88 member nations), and whales continue to be hunted by Iceland, Japan, and Norway. The majority of whales taken in recent years have been by the Norwegian and Japanese fleets; most of the catch consists of minke whales, except in Iceland, where endangered fin whales are also killed.

The killing of whales for research, while permitted under IWC regulations, is opposed by many as unnecessary. Opponents of whaling believe it has been abused and should be abolished, and activist antiwhaling organizations also have attempted to interfere with such whaling. In 2010 Australia brought a case to the International Court of Justice in which it asserted that Japan's Antarctic whaling program was not for scientific research, and in 2014 the ICJ ruled against Japan and ordered the program ended. The ruling did not affect Japanese whaling off the country's coast, and Japan resumed Antarctic whaling under a new research plan in 2015. In 2019, however, Japan withdrew from the IWC and resumed commercial whaling in its exclusive economic zone off the Japanese coast.

In 2003 the IWC voted to expand its main functions to include whale conservation. The Indian Ocean and the ocean waters off Mexico, a number of South Pacific island nations and territories, and Antarctica have been designated whale sanctuaries. The protective efforts have allowed some species to return to numbers that will probably assure their survival, but others, especially the right whales, remain severely depleted in numbers and endangered. In 2006, after more nations favoring commercial whaling joined the IWC, it narrowly voted to support the eventual return of commercial whaling; reinstatement of commercial whaling by the IWC, however, has not yet occurred.

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