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A History of the International Whaling Commission (IWC)

Whaler demonstrating a harpoon gun in Norway.
Where did the idea of the International Whaling Comission come from and why?

Whaling as an industry began around the 11th Century when the Basques started hunting and trading the products from the northern right whale (now one of the most endangered of the great whales). They were followed first by the Dutch and the British, and later by the Americans, Norwegians and many other nations.

Humpback and sperm whales were the next targets of commercial whaling, with oil for lighting and other uses as the most important product. In the late nineteenth century the whaling industry was transformed by the development of steam powered ships, enabling the hunting of faster blue and fin whales, and of the explosive harpoon, enabling further reach and increased accuracy.

Hunting that knew no boundaries

The new technology, coupled with the depletion of whales in the rest of the world, led to the spread of hunting to the Antarctic, where huge concentrations of feeding whales made large-scale whaling highly profitable. The First World War provided a large market for explosives using glycerine from baleen whale oil provided by British and Norwegian whaling in the Antarctic. Meanwhile Japanese whaling had developed separately as a coastal industry, mainly for humpback, right and grey whales.

The need for conservation, worldwide

Since whales migrate world-wide through both coastal waters and the open oceans, the need for international co-operation in their conservation became evident. By 1925, the League of Nations recognised that whales were over-exploited and that there was a need to regulate whaling activities. In 1930, the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics was set up in order to keep track of catches.

43,000 killed in a single year

This was followed by the first international regulatory agreement, the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which was signed by 22 nations in 1931. However, some of the major whaling nations, including Germany and Japan, did not join and 43,000 whales were killed that same year.

International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW)

With species after species of the great whales being hunted close to extinction, various nations met throughout the 1930s attempting to bring order to the industry. Finally, in 1948 the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) came into force.

The Preamble states that: "Recognising the interest of the nations of the world in safeguarding for future generations the great natural resources represented by the whale stocks.....having decided to conclude a convention to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry".

IWC - decision-making bodyfor ICRW

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established as its decision-making body, originally with 15 member states. The IWC meets annually and adopts regulations on catch limits, whaling methods and protected areas, on the basis of a three-quarters majority vote.

In recent years the IWC, recognizing new threats to whales, has moved towards a broader conservation agenda which includes incidental catches in fishing gear and concerns related to global environmental change. Whale hunting by indigenous people, called “aboriginal subsistence" whaling, is subject to different IWC controls than those on commercial whaling.

89 member states

Today the IWC has 89 member states, including whaling countries, ex-whaling countries, and countries that have never had whaling industries but joined either to have a voice in the conservation of whales or to support whaling interests.