Whaling and Welfare

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WSPA Global Campaign Briefing

Position: The Global Campaign coalition is absolutely opposed to the killing of whales, as whaling is inherently cruel and unnecessary. The coalition does not support the concept of the lethal sustainable use of whales.


Two million great whales were killed in the last century, with some species hunted to the brink of extinction. The killing methods caused widespread and prolonged suffering, whilst concern that some species could become extinct led to a worldwide ban on commercial whaling in 1986. Despite this moratorium, some 1,400 whales are still killed annually using methods little changed in a hundred years.

There are 80 or more species of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the family, Cetacea. These range from the great whales, such as the blue whale, the largest animal to have ever lived, to the smaller dolphins and porpoises. As air-breathing animals that feed their young on their mother's milk, whales are mammals. They are highly intelligent and strongly social creatures.

Whaling Today

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the intergovernmental body charged with regulating whaling. The international moratorium on commercial whaling, agreed by the IWC, came into force in 1986. However, loopholes mean that some whales continue to be hunted. Whalers from Norway and Japan, for example, will kill over 1,400 whales this year in commercial and so-called "scientific" whaling operations. In 2003, Iceland resumed whaling, killing over 30 minke whales for so-called "research." The meat from whaling operations, whether commercial or "scientific," is ultimately intended for human consumption. Yet the killing methods fall well short of the standards necessary to achieve humane slaughter in livestock animals.

Whaling & Welfare

In 1946, Dr Harry Lillie, a ship's physician aboard an Antarctic whaling ship likened the killing of a whale to, "horse having two or three explosive spears stuck into its stomach and being made to pull a butcher’s truck through the streets of London while it pours blood in the gutter…." He said that "The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it."

The technology used for killing whales has altered little since the 19th century, when the grenade tipped harpoon was invented. Fired from a cannon, the harpoon is intended to penetrate the whale's body to a depth of 30 cm (12 inches) before detonating, killing it by inflicting massive shock or injury. The animal can then be winched to the whaling boat by a line held fast by the harpoon's spring-loaded claws that open on impact. Although, the type of explosive used has changed from black powder to more powerful penthrite, for over 100 years, the basic killing method has remained the same.

Killing Methods

Despite its destructive power, the whaler's harpoon often fails to kill its victim instantaneously. Recent data shows that, for commercial and scientific hunts, the average estimated time to death is 2 to 3 minutes, with some whales taking over an hour to die. However, even these data may underestimate the suffering of hunted whales, as a recent scientific and veterinary review concluded that the criteria used by the IWC to assess death or insensibility to pain in whales are "inadequate."

Using these "inadequate" criteria, Norway reported that 80.7% of minke whales were killed "instantaneously" during the 2002 hunt. Japan's Antarctic minke whale hunt in 2002/2003 reported 40.2% killed "instantaneously."

If the first harpoon fails to kill the whale, then a second penthrite harpoon or rifle is used as a secondary killing method. The common use of secondary methods reflects the inefficiency of current whale killing practices. The combination of variable factors such as visibility at sea, sea state, ship's motion, and marksmanship have a significant impact on the ability to reliably kill a whale instantaneously, regardless of the killing device used.

'Struck & Lost' Whales

Some whales are struck but not captured, and are known as "struck and lost." Struck and lost whales can incur a wide range of injuries, such as bleeding and damage to internal organs. They may be so badly injured that they may have difficulty in feeding or breeding, or may die from their wounds.


Whalers depend on getting close to their quarry for successful harpooning. However, whales have not evolved as a prey species and are therefore not adapted to being chased. Pursuit times of 30 minutes or more are not unusual in Japanese hunts for example. The pursuit itself often causes physical and psychological stress, which may lead to fatal syndromes such as Exertional Myopathy, a condition that scientists believe may prove fatal, even to animals that evade capture.

Welfare Summary

A stressful pursuit, prolonged times to death, and some animals being struck and lost, add up to a major welfare problem for whales, of which we may not yet know the full extent. The physiological adaptations of cetaceans to the marine environment have significant implications for their welfare. For example, adaptations for diving and going without oxygen intake for long periods, make it difficult to determine when the animal is dead. Whales may therefore survive and experience pain over a period significantly longer than suggested by the current IWC criteria for death in whales. This begs the question, are some whales still alive when hauled onto the whaling ship for flensing?

Whaling and the IWC

The difficulties inherent in killing a large, partly submerged animal at sea give rise to severe welfare concerns. Yet, within the IWC, the welfare issues remain largely unaddressed. Now whaling appears to be on the way back, with some nations wanting to see a return to commercial whaling. A global coalition of over 140 animal welfare societies in 57 countries, led by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), aims to ensure worldwide recognition that the whaling debate is not just about numbers and conservation, but also about animal suffering.

Global Campaign Objective: To maintain the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling for the foreseeable future by focusing on the severe welfare problems inherent in whaling activities. The campaign also aims to achieve a majority commitment to welfare within the IWC.

January 19, 2004

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