Though condemnation is widespread and the demand for meat is low, three countries continue to slaughter whales for profit
In some of the most remote places on earth – places like the windswept, ice-choked lands of South Georgia in the Subantarctic, or the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic, where scant human presence and consistently cold temperatures help to preserve evidence of previous occupation – it is possible to see the decrepit remains of a once flourishing industry that is now a shadow of its former self. Sights like the rusting machinery and sarcophagi-like buildings found at Grytviken in South Georgia, or the piles of beluga whale bones resting on the shores of Ingebrigtsenbukta in Svalbard, serve as a memorial to the unsustainable exploitation of the planet's whales that drove some species to the brink of extinction in the 20th century.
Once hunted for their meat, bones and blubber – the latter of which can be turned into a type of oil – whaling was once a global and highly lucrative industry that harvested upwards of 60,000 whales a year at its peak in the 1960s and 70s, but today is practiced only by a handful of nations. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up in 1946 to regulate the industry, but by 1969, huge declines in whale populations around the globe led to many countries imposing a complete ban on whaling. Finally, in 1986, the IWC established an international moratorium on the commercial hunting of the 13 “great whale” species, a grouping which includes such species as the blue, humpback and sperm whales. This moratorium, along with increased conservation attention, has helped many (though not all) whale populations to recover somewhat in the ensuing decades.
The continued overfishing of the oceans and scientific research into cetacean intelligence has led to growing cultural taboos around the killing of whales in many parts of the world. However, some cultures have continued their long traditions of whale hunting either in opposition to the IWC’s moratorium; as part of “scientific research”; as part of regulated subsistence harvests by indigenous communities; or by leaving the IWC altogether.