Few issues get people more riled up than politics, religion or sports. But the longstanding clash that's evolved over the years about the right to hunt and kill whales -- or the right to stop those who do -- comes close.
Men have been hunting and killing whales, or whaling, for centuries. Early whalers started hunting for survival, but their motivation may have changed once there was good money to be made from their catches. Those days are gone.
Whaling for profit has been banned since 1986, but whaling for scientific research is still allowed in certain areas. This exception incites strong opposition among anti-whaling groups, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Greenpeace USA. The organizations accuse countries such as Japan of skirting a global law that has prohibited commercial whaling for more than two decades. In addition, conservationists say whaling is the reason that some whale populations have reached the brink of extinction and have had trouble regaining their numbers.
This article will take a look at the history and evolution of whaling, the impact it has had on the species and the ongoing battle to enforce the International Whaling Commission's (IWC's) ban on commercial whaling.
Now let's take a look at why whales -- the world's largest mammals -- were hunted in the first place.
Early man hunted whales because their meat and blubber were able to fulfill his basic survival needs. For thousands of years, the climate was too cold for many people, including the Eskimos and the indigenous people living in Greenland, to grow their own vegetables. Whale meat became breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whale blubber provided energy and vitamins A, C and D, and whale meat is rich in niacin, iron and protein [source: Tevuk]. Every part of the mammal was eaten or used to light lamps and make tools and sleds.
Consuming whale meat has also been woven into Japan's history and culture. Whale meat became a crucial part of the Japanese food supply after World War II, because it was a cheap source of protein for a country that was suffering from postwar poverty. This delicacy was even served to children in school lunches from the late 1940s to the early 1960s [source: McCurry]. However, today's Japanese youngsters aren't keen on eating whale meat just because their elders did. A Greenpeace poll conducted in the summer of 2006 by the Nippon Research Centre revealed that 95 percent of Japanese people say they never or rarely eat whale meat.
The mammal's oil also motivated whalers. Whale oil lit lamps and formed candle wax. It also found a place in margarine and other products, like additives in motor oils, automatic transmission fluids, cosmetics, perfumes, detergents and vitamins [source: Pees]. This plentiful oil allowed the commercial whaling industry to grow quickly. An average-size sperm whale could produce approximately 25 to 40 barrels of whale oil [source: Pees]. Whale oil fueled the economic growth of many nations, including the United States, Great Britain, Germany and Norway.
People in these areas don't depend on whale oil anymore, because petroleum eventually took its place as a fuel mainstay. Still, whaling continues despite a commercial ban imposed by the IWC, the body formed in 1946 to monitor the fate of whales. However, Japan is allowed to hunt whales annually under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. The Japanese government says it's studying whale populations. Activist groups accuse the Japanese of hunting whales to sell the meat in their country.