Whales are fairly easy to kill because of their large size in some cases and because of their need to come to the surface to breathe. Modern whaling methods have made this even easier. Whale harvesting, mostly in international waters, has followed the classic pattern of a tragedy of the commons, with whalers killing an estimated 1.5 million whales from 1925-1975. This overharvesting drove 8 of the 11 major species to commercial extinction
In 1946, the International Whaling C ommission (IWC) was established to regulate the whaling industry by setting annual quotas for various whale species to prevent overharvesting. But IWC quotas often were based on insufficient data or were ignored by whaling countries. Without enforcement powers, the IWC was not able to stop the decline of most commercially hunted whale species. In 1970, the US stopped all commercial whaling and banned all imports of whale products. Under pressure from conservationists and the governments of many nonwhaling nations, in 1986, the IWC began imposing a moratorium on commercial whaling. It worked. The estimated number of whales killed commercially worldwide dropped from 42,480 in 1970 --> 1,500 in 2009.
However, despite the moratorium, more than 33,000 whales were hunted and killed from 1986-2010, mostly by Japan and Norway, which had officially objected to and ignored the moratorium. In 2006, Iceland also stopped observing the moratorium. These three nations are pressuring the IWC to revise the moratorium and allow for resumed commercial hunting of some whale species.
Whales are just one part of the incredible diversity of aquatic species and their habitats that we must help to sustain. In this chapter, we discuss this important challenge.