Jane P. Davenport

What Does the International Whaling Commission Do?

Last month, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) met in Slovenia to discuss the plight of the world’s whale populations. Due to the pandemic, this is the first time IWC member nations have met since 2018. There was a lot to discuss, including four years of information and hundreds of pages of scientific reports and recommendations on the status of whales and dolphins, and the threats that they face, from the IWC’s Scientific Committee.

Many people—and certainly the media—think that the IWC is just a lot of contentious arguments about whaling. That was certainly a big part of the meetings in the past. Heated tempers and nasty tactics were commonplace in this highly political arena, with NGOs playing an important role bearing witness on behalf of the public and helping to support those trying to stop the ill-advised resumption of whaling. But in recent years, the issue of whaling has been more of a loud sideshow. The real work of the IWC has been on responsible whale-watching and conservation.

Humpback whale
Chris Parsons

Addressing Top Threats to Whales

Since the IWC implemented the international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, its discussions have increasingly turned to environmental and conservation issues, such as entanglement in fishing gear, marine litter, ship strikes, pollution and climate change. Defenders of Wildlife focuses its work on whales—North Atlantic right whale, Southern Resident orca, Cook Inlet beluga—that are endangered due to many of the issues IWC strives to regulate. 

Unregulated Whale Watching

What many don’t immediately realize is that the IWC is also very involved in discussions about the billion-dollar international whale watching industry. Whale watching can have major benefits in terms of education and inspiring the public to conserve whales, but there are concerns about the impacts of underregulated whale watching on whale and dolphin populations around the world. The IWC is increasingly involved in providing science-based advice on whale watching management and sustainability. One useful resource the IWC has produced is the easily accessible Whale Watching Handbook.

Right Whale Calf Swimming with Dolphins
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-0


This year, the IWC passed an important resolution on marine plastics. Plastic debris in the ocean poses a significant threat to whales and dolphins in the U.S. and globally. The IWC was one of the first international bodies to recognize plastics as a major and growing conservation issue. The resolution calls on the IWC to work closely with the United Nations Environment Program to develop global measures to reduce ocean plastics, identify hotspots, incorporate ocean plastics management in marine mammal protected areas and even for the IWC itself to minimize single-use plastics in its day-to-day operations.

Bycatch Mitigation

Other IWC conservation activities that affect U.S. and global whale and dolphin populations include a bycatch mitigation initiative, which seeks to research and promote the best ways to reduce the entanglement of whales in fishing gear. The IWC also maintains a vessel strike database, which monitors vessel collisions with whales. These data are being used by nations and international bodies, such as the International Maritime Organization, to help reduce this threat, for example, through speed restrictions and modified shipping routes.

There are many other conservation issues on which the IWC is funding research, analyzing science and recommending mitigation measures, such as ocean acidification, chemical pollution, emerging diseases and harmful algal blooms. It also provides valuable recommendations and advice on the conservation of threatened and endangered species that Defenders also is helping to protect, such as the North Atlantic right whale; Cook Inlet beluga whale; California blue whales; Alaska bowhead whales; southern resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest; the vaquita (or Gulf of California harbor porpoise); and the recently discovered Rice’s whale, or Gulf of Mexico whale—the most threatened large whale in U.S. waters.

Cook Inlet beluga whale
Paul Wade, NOAA

Commercial Whaling

Unfortunately, despite the ground-breaking conservation work the IWC has been conducting and facilitating, the politics of commercial whaling continue to hinder progress. Only three nations still conduct commercial whaling (Japan, Norway and Iceland) and one of these looks as though it may cease whaling operations soon. Iceland’s whaling activities have neither been profitable nor widely supported by the Icelandic public. The majority of Icelanders would welcome an end to commercial whaling, as the activity is having a negative impact on their tourism industry, especially as whale watching is an important tourist attraction there.

At the last meeting of the IWC in 2018, the Commissioners rejected a proposal led by the Japanese government and allied nations to lift the global moratorium on commercial whaling. With the failure to lift the moratorium, Japan left the IWC, although it continues to attend meetings an as “observer.” This year, two resolution proposals were introduced that had Japan’s fingerprints on them. The resolutions were put forward by countries that had been allied to, and indeed funded by, Japan to attend the IWC. 

Humpback side
Chris Parsons

The first called for the IWC to set up a working group to discuss “food security.” This is a rather unsubtle attempt to frame commercial whaling as important because it would provide protein to an increasing world population. However, whales have not been a major food source for any country in the IWC for many decades. (Certain indigenous communities are still allowed to hunt whales because of their longstanding reliance on them, nutritionally and culturally.) In addition, the IWC’s expertise is on whales, not human food security or nutritional health, so raising the issue within this body is out of place. The second resolution essentially proposed to discuss and push through a whale hunting quota in order to overturn the international whaling moratorium. 

The IWC postponed discussion on both of these resolutions until the next meeting. This means that the political machinations of the Japanese government could still end up overturning the international whaling moratorium. 

In order to continue the conservation work of the IWC, the United States and other countries need to continue their support for this important shift in focus, and thus for the whales and dolphins benefiting from this work.


Jane Davenport headshot

Jane P. Davenport

Senior Attorney
Jane Davenport’s litigation and legal advocacy work for Defenders focuses on two main areas: first, protecting marine species such as sharks, sea turtles, and marine mammals from direct and incidental take in fisheries; and second, protecting freshwater aquatic species from habitat destruction and pollution from surface coal mining.

Wildlife & Wild Places

Beluga Whale Pod Chuckchi Sea
Southern Resident Orca Breaching
Vaquita Swimming
Spotted Dolphin

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