Commercial whaling devastated the world’s biggest whale species, pushing some of them to the very brink of extinction in the first half of the 20th Century. Whaling for meat, oil, or whalebone was not a new, but explosive harpoons and industrial factory ships plundering the seas for whales, were. They had an even more catastrophic impact than what had come in centuries before.

It was the realisation that catches were declining that led to the creation, by whaling nations, of an organisation that would become the ‘International Whaling Commission’ (IWC).

Whaling Protest at IWC Meeting in UK © Greenpeace / Pierre Gleizes

IWC meeting. Brighton, UK

When they first got together they realised that the ways that different countries were recording what they catch — even what they called ‘whales’ — didn’t match up. Since the whales being hunted at the time were baleen and sperm whales, they became known as the ‘Great Whales’, and fell under the IWC’s responsibility, leaving a lot of other animals we know as ‘whales’ not covered by that definition.

The IWC was set up in 1946, and it took 20 years for the countries involved to agree to stop killing blue whales because there were virtually none left. As the biggest of the whales, they had been relentlessly hunted out first. It was the first global ban on any whaling to happen.

Then, in the mid 1970s, Greenpeace’s early whaling campaign shone a spotlight on the industry in a way that had never happened before; showing the public images of whales being killed sparked a movement and a sea-change in popular opinion against whaling.

Rainbow Warrior Crew with Whaling Banner, 1978 © Greenpeace / Jean Paul Ferrero

Rainbow Warrior crew holding banner “Save the Whales”, 1978.

IWC had to change. After over a decade of committed campaigning the ‘Save the Whales’ movement triumphed when the IWC voted in 1982 for a moratorium (ban) commercial whaling.

That ban came into force in 1986 and is one of the defining conservation successes of the last hundred years; marking the virtual end of large-scale whaling around the world. It was also a ground-breaking agreement between countries to control what happens on the ‘high seas’; the areas beyond national boundaries.

Since 1986 we have learned a lot about humanity’s growing impact on the oceans, and we have carelessly unleashed a whole new range of threats at the world’s remaining whale populations. Our whales must contend with the impacts of climate change, habitat loss, overfishing, fisheries entanglement, noise disturbance, toxic pollution, and now the growing scourge of plastic filling our seas.

Yet, since the moratorium was announced it has been threatened and undermined. Using objections, loopholes, and the pretence of ‘scientific’ whaling, a few nations have continued hunting whales commercially to this day. Though it might not make any environmental or economic sense, there are those who simply want the ban lifted, and to once again legitimise whaling on the world’s high seas, our global commons.

Commodifying large, and slow growing animals has historically always led to them being overhunted. Just look at the fate of rhinos and elephants. Today the world’s remaining whales need more protections, not less, and the IWC really needs to be able to focus on addressing threats to critically endangered species of whales, dolphins and porpoises rather than an endless debate on commercial whaling.

The political reality though is that the ban on whaling is under threat, and if it falls then it will likely do so, not because the ‘pro whaling’ lobby won the argument, but because the ‘pro whales’ governments didn’t put enough resources or political capital into whale conservation.

We can all help change that, by making sure our politicians know what we think.

Save the Whales Rally in Wellington © Greenpeace / Marty Melville

Several petition boxes are passed along a line of Greenpeace supporters at an anti-whaling rally on Parliament grounds. The petition is signed by 53,000 New Zealanders and calls on the government to protect the future of the world’s whales.

Whales belong in the ocean, and are a vital part of making it work properly — storing carbon, recycling nutrients and mixing layers of ocean while they do. Our seas are poorer and weaker without whales, and the world would be too. So let’s not go backwards on whale conservation now.

In a world where our whales face so many other threats — the one thing we can, and should, stop immediately is commercial whaling. So let’s agree to stop talking about undoing the ban, and get on with all the other urgent conservation challenges instead.

Willie Mackenzie is an Oceans Campaigner with Greenpeace International