Whaling, which is the hunting and killing of whales, is an activity that dates back centuries. Native people like the Macah, Nootka, and Coastal Salish of the Pacific Northwest are known to have hunted whales nearly 2,000 years ago. Whaling became popular with Europeans when they colonized North America in the late 1600s.

By 1672, whaling parties were organized off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts and off of Long Island in New York. However, by the early 1700s, the number of whales that close to shore had already begun to decline, so larger ships called sloops were developed that could capture whales farther off shore.

In the late 1800s, whaling had become a thriving commercial industry. Two of the most commonly hunted whales were the right whale and the sperm whale. The right whale was so named because it was the "right" whale to catch.

It floated after it was killed and so it was easy to recover from the ocean. Sperm whales were highly prized for their spermaceti, an oil found in their heads and used for making candles.

Whales had a variety of commercial uses. Whale oil was used for lubrication, lighting, cosmetics, and food. Whale bones were ground and sold as fertilizer and animal feed supplements. The baleen (horn-like substance that hang from the upper jaws of some whales) from whales was once commonly used in women’s corsets (an undergarment).

A type of fat called ambergris was occasionally found in the intestines of whales and sold for great sums of money. It was used to make perfume. Today, there are substitutes for all of the products that whales supplied.

The decline of whales

The whaling industry quickly overwhelmed the stocks of whales in the ocean. It is estimated that 4.4 million large whales swam in the oceans in 1900. By 2004, the estimates are that only 1 million are left. Of the 11 species of whales that are commonly hunted, in 1999, 8 were commercially extinct, which means that they are too rare to justify the expense of hunting.

The blue whale is in danger of becoming totally extinct (no longer in existence). When commercial blue whale hunting ended in 1964, only about 1,000 animals were left and that may be too small a number for the population to recover.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 in order to develop guidelines to maintain whale stocks and allow for a healthy whaling industry. In response to the declining numbers of whales in the oceans, the IWC banned all commercial whaling in 1986.

Because their countries depend on a whaling industry, Norway withdrew from the IWC in 1993 and Iceland withdrew in 1996. Japan never stopped hunting whales, even when the ban was in place. These three countries currently hunt the minke whale in Arctic waters.

Several whale sanctuaries (areas where whales may not be hunted) have been imposed by the IWC. The Indian Ocean Sanctuary, established in 1979, prevents whaling in the southern Indian Ocean, in the feeding grounds of many large whales.

In 1994, the IWC voted to make the oceans around Antarctica—where many species of large whales feed—a conservation area from whalers. This sanctuary neighbors the Indian Ocean Sanctuary. Unfortunately, this sanctuary is often ignored. Both Norway and Japan have killed whales in these waters since the sanctuaries were established.

The conservation efforts of the IWC have resulted in increases in numbers of whales. Since the commercial whaling ban was put in place, estimates of blue whales off the coast of California increased from 500 in 1979 to more than 2000 in 1991.

Similarly, approximately 88 humpback whales were observed off the coast of California in 1979, while more than 600 were observed in 1991. The California gray whale was nearly extinct in 1986. Since then, its numbers have rebounded dramatically to approximately 26,000 animals in 2000. In 1993, it was removed from the endangered species list.