Whaling in Decline: Dr. Holt’s Dream Fulfilled

Japan’s whaling underwent some dramatic changes in 2019, following that nation’s departure from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) after more than six decades of membership: Japan finally ended the pretense that it was conducting “research whaling” in Antarctica and on the high seas of the North Pacific, terminating its longstanding industrial whaling operations in those regions. It will now pursue openly commercial whaling operations within 200 miles of its shoreline, and target fewer whales (under 200 in 2020 versus 640 in 2018).


In reality, very little has changed, however, as Japan’s research whaling was always commercial in nature, with the “byproducts” of the research (meat and blubber) sold onto the domestic market to pay for the following year’s hunt. But the operation was never close to profitable and for decades has relied on massive government grants and subsidies to keep the fleet operational. Whaling’s ongoing dependence on government intervention was confirmed in early 2020 when the Ministry of Fisheries secured exactly the same whaling budget for 2020 as it spent in 2019 (about US$50 million), even though its overhead will be far lower this year without the long-distance hunts and the costs of conducting research, although some studies will continue. 

Government officials insist that the massive public subsidies are temporary and that whaling will become a truly competitive private business. But given the dwindling market for whale meat in Japan, financial independence is clearly impossible in the short to medium term, and being weaned from the public trough is probably the last thing the special interests that benefit from the longstanding subsidies want. So, for at least the foreseeable future, Japanese whaling will be funded by a government that is heavily involved in every level of the operation, from setting quotas to promoting whale meat recipes. In the long term, though, it is hard to see how Japan’s whaling can ever be economically viable. 

Iceland’s fin whaling industry is also artificially supported (mainly by a single wealthy individual) and has stockpiles of unwanted whale meat, thanks to the same inexorable decline in consumer demand. To recoup some return on its investment, Iceland exports thousands of tons of meat and blubber to Japan, where it typically sells for less than Japan’s own whale products and often ends up in low-value cans. Domestic consumption of minke whale meat in Iceland has also plummeted, and the owner of the lone remaining minke whaling vessel indicated in 2019 that he could not turn a profit on whaling. Last year, for the first time since 2002, no whales were hunted in Iceland even though the government had issued permits that would have allowed up to 500 to be killed. 

Declining demand is also driving changes in Norway. Its domestic market for whale meat is so diminished, its whalers are only removing the most valuable cuts of meat from carcasses and dumping the rest at sea. Last year, they killed 429 whales—one third of the annual quota and the lowest number killed since 1996. As with Iceland’s minke whalers, profit margins are problematic, and many vessel owners have turned to fishing instead. Of the 21 whaling boats in 2009, only 12 participated in the hunt in 2019. Even at this reduced level of operation, and despite government-funded promotional campaigns, Norway, like Iceland, also has a surfeit of whale meat and is looking to the bigger consumer base in Japan for relief. One Norwegian whaling company has even established a branch in Japan and exported 200 metric tons of whale meat and blubber last year, equivalent to about 100 minke whales. 

The obvious reality is that whaling is not a viable industry and whale watching would be a far more lucrative business for each of the whaling nations, a fact already proven in Iceland, where whale watching revenues far exceed those from whaling. Even in Japan, the number of people taking whale-watching trips more than doubled between 2008 and 2016, to nearly 234,000 people. 

This economic reality was the enduring hope of a champion of the anti-whaling movement, Dr. Sidney Holt, who died in late December—still active in policy and scientific discussions at 93 years old. 

Sidney began his seven-decade career in the 1950s as a fisheries biologist. He co-authored On the Dynamics of Exploited Fish Populations in 1957, a groundbreaking textbook on fisheries management. He spent decades working for the UK government, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), but his life changed forever in 1961 when, after being directed by the FAO to serve on a new three-person committee established to advise the IWC’s Scientific Committee on how to ensure sustainable whaling in the Antarctic, he discovered his passion for whales. Although he quickly realized that the crisis of overhunting was not limited to the Southern Ocean and whales worldwide would not survive without a total ban on commercial whaling, the early conservation measures he helped to develop unquestionably saved several species and populations of whales from extinction. 

By the early 1980s, and after the hugely successful “Save the Whales” campaign, spearheaded by AWI, the majority of whaling nations finally accepted that commercial whaling had to end. The groundbreaking proposal for a global ban was not only co-authored by Sidney, it was presented by the government of the Seychelles, whose delegation he led. Sidney was also ahead of his time in recognizing the value of well-regulated whale watching, especially for former whaling nations, and he was instrumental in the effort to get its value recognized by the IWC. Almost four decades later, whale watching is a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide, and the IWC is working with a range of other intergovernmental organizations, member governments, scientists, the whale-watching industry, and NGOs to understand and manage its potential impacts on individual whales and whale populations.

Sidney’s deepest wish—to be outlived by the whales he loved—was fulfilled; the whaling moratorium remains in place after nearly 40 years, most whale populations are recovering, and demand for whale meat is in steep decline. As Sidney’s colleagues at AWI and around the world continue to work toward the goal he didn’t live to see—an end to all commercial whaling—we are grateful for his unrivaled years of service to the oceans and will miss his long friendship. 

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