Whaling myths

Background - 20 March, 2014
Apparently the whales are responsible for the collapsing fish stocks and useful science comes from the Japanese whaling programme. It would be funny if they weren't some of the many myths constantly pushed by the whaling industry to justify their continued hunt. Read some of the other incredible "facts" about whaling.

Myth No. 1

Whales "eat too many fish" and must be culled

The pro-whaling forces repeatedly insist that whales eat "too many" fish and need to be controlled as part of a broader marine ecosystem management approach. The statement is unscientific and has no basis in fact.

  • Many whales do not eat fish at all; indeed, most of the world's baleen whales live in the Southern Hemisphere, where they primarily eat krill.
  • According to the whalers' own records, they cut open 5,940 whales between 1987 and 2005. In three out of four whaling zones, not a single fish was found in the stomachs. In the fourth zone, 0.2 percent of the stomach contents were fish. That's a total of 125kg of fish found in 18 years of "research".
  • The sizes of many whale populations today are at a small fraction of their levels in pre-whaling times when  fish populations were considerably larger and much healthier than they are today. That is, commercial fish stocks and many whale populations have both declined precipitously.
  • The primary predators of fish are not whales, but other fish. The removal of top predators (such as cetaceans) can cause major ecosystem disturbances, with negative consequences for fisheries.
  • Human overfishing (not whales) is the cause of the precipitous decline of commercial fish stocks worldwide. As much as they would like to blame the whales, it is the Fisheries Agency of Japan that shares partial responsibility for this.

Myth No. 2

Whale populations are numerous and increasing

The whalers argue repeatedly that whale populations are numerous and increasing, and that their catches will not deplete those populations.

However, these arguments are based on some doubtful science. For example:

  • The website of Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) claims that populations of humpback and fin whales are growing by 14-16 percent. The IWC's Scientific Committee has agreed is biologically impossible.
  • The Japanese government continues to cite an outdated estimate of 760,000 minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • The 760,000 figure was an estimate based on surveys completed in 1987/88 which the IWC Scientific Committee once acknowledged was the best available at the time. Since then, more recent surveys have suggested a significantly lower abundance of minke whales. Indeed, the Scientific Committee agreed in 2000 that the 760,000 number was no longer appropriate. There has been no agreed population estimate since and the population appears to be declining.
  • Proposed Japanese catches of humpback and fin whales in the Antarctic will occur in populations that are believed to be below the level at which catches would be allowed under scientific guidelines developed by the IWC.
  • Catches of humpbacks may threaten recovery of isolated humpback populations in the Pacific as well as interfering with existing non-lethal research programs.

Myth No. 3

Commercial whaling is essential for traditional, cultural or nutritional reasons

Japan's whaling tradition dates back only a few centuries (roughly as long as the whaling traditions of Britain and the Netherlands), and is centred around a few coastal communities. Japan's Antarctic whaling did not begin until the 1930s, and was expanded massively following World War II at the instigation of the United States, as a means of feeding a starving population. Demand for whale meat is low in Iceland, Japan and Norway.

  • In 2006, the Norwegian government cut short the whaling season halfway through because the market for whale meat was already saturated.
  • The Icelandic government has made it clear that commercial whaling will only continue if an export market can be found.
  • Meanwhile, Japan has more than 4,000 tons of whale meat from its "scientific" whaling program in cold storage - uneaten, unsold, and unwanted.
  • Few Japanese people view whales as a vital food source and even fewer actually eat them. According to an opinion poll conducted in Japan in June 2006, 69 percent of Japanese people do not support whaling on the high seas and 95 percent never or rarely eat whale meat.

Myth No. 4

The anti-whaling countries have repeatedly blocked attempts to adopt the Revised Management Procedure

One of the most frequent claims by the Fisheries Agency of Japan, as well as by Norwegian and Icelandic whaling interests, is that non-whaling nations are obstructionist, moving goal posts and doing all they can to block "rational" management of whale populations.

Specifically, they repeatedly insist that NGOs and the conservation-minded governments have stubbornly blocked the adoption of the Revised Management Procedure and Revised Management Scheme (RMP/RMS). The truth is rather different.

  • The IWC adopted the RMP in principle back in 1994. The biggest obstacle to the implementation of the full Revised Management Scheme (RMS) has been the refusal by Japan and other whaling nations to accept the need for monitoring and oversight of their whaling operations, from inspectors and observers on board whaling vessels to oversight of DNA databases and trade monitoring schemes. Japan and the pro-whaling nations refuse to accept control and administrative measures that are considered routine in modern fisheries treaties.
  • At the 54th IWC meeting, in Shimonoseki, Japan, Sweden introduced a proposal to adopt the RMS, which would have moved the IWC toward whaling under very strict conditions. Japan and its paid allies voted against it. Had they voted for it, it would have passed and the RMS would have been adopted five years ago.
  • Norway, having found that the RMP does not provide high enough quotas for its liking, is now working to revise it. This revision is based on running simulations for 300 years and allowing higher catches in the first 100 years, which are made up for by reduced catches over the next 200 years.

Myth No. 5

Whalers have learned from the mistakes of the past

Historically, large-scale management failures, over hunting and the mistake of treating marine mammals as if they were fish, lead to the massive depletion of each whale species that was commercially targeted.

Those who argue for a return to commercial whaling say that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated, that the lessons have been learned.

Recent evidence suggest this is not the case:

  • As outlined above, pro-whalers use disputed population figures and manipulate or ignore the RMP in order to produce the highest possible hunting quotas.
  • Under JARPA II (the Japanese government sponsored hunt), both fin and humpback whales will be targeted. Despite some recovery fin whales are still considered to be endangered, humpbacks to be vulnerable.
  • In August 2006, investigations revealed that Japan had been illegally overfishing for Southern Bluefin tuna over a period of 20 years, taking 178,000 tons of tuna above what was allowed. Southern Bluefin tuna is now considered critically endangered by the IUCN.
  • The Japanese government is using overseas development aid money to buy votes at the International Whaling Commission - in an attempt to compromise the regulatory body overseeing the fate of the whales.

Myth No. 6

Japan’s whale hunt provides useful scientific data

  • During the 18 years of the JARPA programme, 6,778 minke whales were killed, ironically to determine their natural mortality rate (M).
  • A group of international scientists - including the Japanese scientists who carried out the research - later agreed that the values of the data collected were so wide that not only was M unknown, even a value of M=0 could not ruled out - in other words, Japan's research left open the possibility minke whales might even be immortal!

A simple table shows how the research that Japan claims they can only carry out by killing whales can be done non-lethally.




Body length

Take actual measurements

Take photos and measure photos

Body weight

Weigh body

Calculate from length


Collect teeth, earplugs, baleen plates

Estimate from length and sex


Measure body length and determine age

Observe same whale over several years


Examine reproductive glands

Observe same whale over several years


Examine reproductive glands

No non lethal method but can observe when calf is born

Breeding season

Deduce from feotus

Observe on breeding grounds


Feotus present

Biopsy hormone analysis


Examine Mammary gland

Observe mother calf pairs

Breeding cycle

Determine from pregnancy rate and other data

Observe whales on breeding grounds


Examin stomach contents

Faeces collection biopsy


Internal tags recovered when whale is killed

Photo ID satellite tags

Stock structure

Sample tissues from dead whales

Biopsy from live whales