Whales have been hunted for meat, bones and oil for millennia. But it was the rise of commercial whaling in the 1800s which pushed many whale species to the brink of extinction. Industrial factory ships and explosive harpoons slashed whale numbers around the world. By the mid-20th Century, many species were facing extinction.
In the 1970s, Greenpeace’s Save the Whales campaign shone a spotlight on the cruel and unnecessary hunting of whales. As a result, a global ban on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986. The ban has been a huge success and numbers of many whale species have increased, yet some – such as blue and sei whales – are still endangered.
Not every country is on board and some governments have continued to challenge the ban. Iceland continues to hunt endangered fin whales. Japan has used a loophole in the ban to catch whales for so-called ‘scientific’ purposes. To prevent this, Greenpeace activists challenged Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean. And our researchers exposed corruption in the Japanese whaling programme, but faced persecution and were put on trial instead.
But, in 2018, Japan announced it was leaving the International Whaling Commission – which regulates whaling and introduced the global ban – and would resume commercial whaling in Japanese waters.
Pollution and noise threaten whales
Whales also face other threats. Pollution and litter is a big problem. Whales choke on plastic, are poisoned by toxic chemicals, and become entangled in discarded fishing gear. They also suffer from injuries caused by collisions with ships, and the noise from underwater blasting as companies search for more oil. And like everything in the oceans, whales are affected by climate change. Increasing water temperatures increase and changes in their food are adding extra pressure.
We need to end commercial whaling completely. As large, slow-growing creatures, whales are vulnerable to over-hunting. Commercial whaling doesn’t even make economic sense. There’s very little demand for whale meat, even in Japan. There are also concerns about accumulated toxins in whale meat causing health problems.
We are also beginning to discover how important whales are for the health of the entire oceans. Whale poo provides nutrients to other ocean life, including microscopic phytoplankton which generate half of the oxygen we breathe. And when whales die, they sink to the deep ocean floor where their remains provide vital food for the creatures living in the deep.
As whales continue to face growing threats from hunting and pollution, we need to step up our efforts to protect them. Creating ocean sanctuaries will provide safe regions for whales to flourish, while sustainable fishing practices will ensure we leave them with enough to eat.
For healthy oceans, we need healthy whales so protecting them is good for our whole planet.