Successful hunters defin a narwhal in Qaanaaq, Greenland. In addition to its meat, indigenous peoples across the Arctic hunt the narwhal for its skin, which is an important source of vitamin C, and for its long tusk, which once earned the animal the moniker "unicorn of the sea."
During Europe's Middle Ages narwhal tusks were worth ten times their weight in gold—and today they can still fetch hunters more than $1,000 apiece.
Narwhal numbers across the Arctic aren't well known but the animals aren't believed to be at risk of extinction. Nonetheless the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) warns that future extinction could be possible if the trade in valuable narwhal ivory isn't closely monitored and controlled. Already, some regional populations are in serious trouble, including those along Greenland's west coast, where narwhals are disappearing under catch limits that many marine scientists insist are far too high.
Photograph by Staffan Widstrand, Corbis
Small Whales Lack Protection
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) does not regulate hunts of pilot whales like these animals taken in the North Atlantic's Faroe Islands. And despite the IWC's commercial whaling moratorium on larger species, several nations still hunt them in significant numbers, including Japan, Norway, and Iceland.
World Wildlife Fund policy analyst Leigh Henry attended the IWC's 64th annual meeting this June and July and reports that another nation looks likely to join that group soon.
"South Korea stated their intent to propose conducting a scientific whaling program at the 2013 meeting, and that is a huge deal," she said. "It's essentially another country planning to unilaterally conduct whaling with no oversight from the IWC."
In the 1970s and 1980s, before the commercial moratorium, South Korea harvested some 1,000 whales a year, Henry added. "They've respected the moratorium and haven't taken any whales since," she added.
"But they have understandably become frustrated watching Norway, Iceland, and Japan conduct their whaling. South Korea has been a good player and they've followed all the rules but after they put this proposal forward they can largely do what they'd like because the IWC doesn't have to OK scientific whaling."
Photograph by Francois Xavier Pelletier, Sygma/Corbis
Fishermen at Futo, Japan's 1994 dolphin hunt used boats and nets to herd dolphin to inshore coves for the slaughter. Futo ended the annual practice for a number of years in the mid 2000s but has since resumed this type of traditional hunt, which also continues in other Japanese communities.
Taiji's similar dolphin hunt drew international attention and much outrage when it was depicted in the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove. While activists campaign to end such hunts, Japanese government quotas allow fishermen to continue so that animals can be captured for the aquarium trade—and slaughtered for their meat.
"There are some countries that eat cows, and there are other countries that eat whales or dolphins," Yutaka Aoki, fisheries division director at Japan's Foreign Ministry, told the Associated Press after the film won its Academy Award in 2010. "A film about slaughtering cows or pigs might also be unwelcome to workers in that industry."
Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic
Whales in the Crosshairs
Sergey Puchineot, an indigenous hunter of the Chukot region in Russia's Far East, opens fire on a gray whale with a Russian Army-issue semiautomatic weapon. The indigenous peoples of Chukot and Washington State are allowed to take Eastern North Pacific gray whales under the IWC's aboriginal subsistence catch limits—a total of 620 animals between 2008 and 2012.
Under current IWC regulations, aboriginal subsistence whaling is also permitted for Denmark (Greenland's fin, humpback, and minke whales), the Russian Federation (Siberia's gray and bowhead whales), St. Vincent and The Grenadines (Bequia, humpback whales), and the United States (Alaska's bowhead and gray whales).
Traditionally, whales are an important subsistence resource for many aboriginal peoples. In today's world, some environmentalists believe these quotas are sometimes abused.
Photograph by Staffan Widstrand, Corbis
Death in the Southern Ocean
Japanese whalers aboard the Kyo Maru Number One landed these whales in the Southern Ocean during the 2005-06 season—and did so despite the determined efforts of activists who used their own vessels to try to thwart the hunt.
The Japanese annually kill many whales in waters the IWC designates as the Southern Ocean Sanctuary—some 19 million square miles (50 million square kilometers) of Antarctic waters where most of the world's whales feed. The whalers do this work in the name of science.
"The IWC went into force in the 1940s and at that time there were not a lot of nonlethal scientific methods available so it allowed any country to unilaterally conduct scientific whaling," said World Wildlife Fund's Henry. "Since 1986, when the commercial whaling moratorium went into place, Japan has conducted this scientific whaling and the exemption does allow you to sell the by-product on the market." So Japan's whaling is technically legal, Henry added, if not supported by most IWC members.
Activists like Paul Watson's Sea Shepherd Society have attempted to disrupt the hunt by getting in the way of harpoons. They claim that Japan's fleet is not pursuing legitimate science, and is therefore not following the letter of the law.
Photograph by Kate Davison, Eyevine/Redux
Whale blood runs back into the Southern Ocean from the decks of a Japanese whaling vessel. While Japan's whaling is ostensibly scientific in nature, Norway and Iceland simply hunt commercially in spite of the IWC moratorium, said Henry. "Iceland acts with complete impunity," said Henry. "They essentially conduct their whaling in an unsustainable manner with no oversight from the IWC."
Japan, Iceland, and Norway have together killed more than 30,000 whales since the international moratorium on commercial whaling was enacted in 1986, according to IWC statistics.
Photograph by Kate Davison, Eyevine/Redux
Butchering Their Catch
Japanese whalers butcher their catch in Chiba, Japan, on July 29, 2005.
Japan claims its "scientific whaling" obeys international law, but it does not honor its intent, according to governments and organizations that have filed protests, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, and the World Wildlife Fund. "There's no need in the 21st century for lethal research," Henry said. "They can get the same information from nonlethal research technologies."
In Japan many consider whales a fishery species that might be managed sustainably and view anti-whaling sentiment as culturally biased. The issue may also be partly generational, as polls have shown more support for whaling among older Japanese, particularly men, than from women and young people.
Photograph by Koichi Kamoshida, Getty Images
Packaged whale meat products await buyers in a Japanese store. While the nation's scientific whaling and subsequent sale of whale meat may be legal, Henry said, it's not particularly profitable.
"It's a bit difficult to understand their motivation," she said. "They spend a lot of money, it's a government subsidized operation, and the bulk of the whale meat stays in deep freeze because there is not much of a market." (World Wildlife Fund published a study of these findings entitled Sink or Swim: The Economics of Whaling Today.)
"So it's difficult to explain. I think the best theory I've heard is that marine resources are so important to the nation of Japan that they want to maintain this foothold and don't want to be seen as giving up their right to any of those resources."
Photograph by Flip Nicklin, Minden Pictures/Corbis
Traditional Dolphin Hunt
A young boy from Kontu, Papua New Guinea, sits with a pair of speared dolphins while watching the village men continue their traditional hunt in the waters off New Ireland's reef. Marine life has long been an essential source of nourishment here and hunts like this are rooted in ancient tradition.
Islanders still practice the skills of past generations, rooted in spirituality and understanding of dolphin behavior, which allow them to hunt and kill these creatures using hand-paddled canoes, bamboo poles, and banging rocks that disrupt dolphin communication.
Photograph by George S. Blonsky
Whalers from the Indonesian island of Lamalera do battle with a sperm whale as they have for many generations—on the most intimate terms. Harpooners leap from their boats wielding a bladed bamboo pole called a kafe, which they use to stab at whales while risking their own lives.
The Lamalerans' tiny wooden boats are crafted by hand and instilled with mystical qualities, as are many aspects of this ancient ritual between predators and prey. Once a whale is harpooned, hunters tie it with ropes and are dragged in their boats by the leviathan, stabbing at it when possible, in epic battles that can last all day or longer.
The whalers kill in the pursuit of meat that can sustain their small village. Lamalera culture mandates that every part of the whale is used or traded with inland villages in what remains primarily a barter society.
Photograph by Fadil Aziz, Alcibbum Photography/Corbis
This dolphin was a victim of bycatch near the small fishing village of Lavanono on Madagascar's southern coast. Incidental capture by fisheries is one of the greatest threats to dolphins and porpoises.
Gill nets are a major problem in many areas, including Madagascar. Such nets are anchored to the sea floor and buoyant at the top—creating a vertical wall of mesh netting that cetaceans have difficulty detecting with their echolocation navigation systems. Dolphins often die when entangled in such fishing gear.
Photograph by Pete Oxford, Minden Pictures/Getty Images
Bones of Past Hunts
Heaps of beluga whale bones on a Svalbard beach bear witness to a whaling heyday long past. The small, social white whales commonly swim in Arctic and subarctic waters where they are still targeted by indigenous people and some larger fishing operations—but in Svalbard they are protected.
Extensive beluga hunting began here in the 18th century and continued unabated until Norway protected belugas here in 1961. In the past four decades the Svalbard population has been bouncing back.
Though many species are slow to reproduce, whale populations around the world have shown an ability to rebound when humans give them protected spaces in which to breed and live.