International Management of Whales and Whaling: An Historical Review of the Regulation of Commercial and Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling

  • Ray Gambell
Keywords: Environmental policy, History, International Whaling Commission, Law, Native peoples, Public opinion, Subsistence, Sustainable economic development, Whales, Whaling, Wildlife management, Arctic regions


The exploitation of whales has spread over the centuries from coastal to international waters, and from pole to pole. Despite the successive depletion of one species and stock after another, not until the 20th century were attempts instituted to regulate the industry and the catches at an international level. Agreements among the whaling companies competing in the Antarctic in the 1930s were closely followed by intergovernmental agreements, culminating in the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which established the International Whaling Commission. In 1975 the commission adopted its "new management procedure" for commercial whaling, based on the concept of maximum sustainable yield. A separate but related management procedure for subsistence whaling operations was subsequently developed, largely because of the problems of the Alaskan bowhead hunt. This gave greater weight to the perceived dependence of the native communities on the hunt than to the status of the whale stock. The tensions between the objectives of the conservation of the whale resources and the orderly development of the whaling industry continue today. Commercial whaling is for the moment prohibited while a comprehensive assessment of stock status and trends is undertaken, together with the development of a revised management procedure. The impact of recent legislative thinking in the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, coastal state sovereignty, and the developing trend towards the precautionary principle of management has caused profound changes in the interpretation and application of the 1946 convention and the consequent management policies by which it is implemented.

Key words: aboriginal, bowhead, conservation, exploitation, International Whaling Commission, management, regulation, subsistence, whaling