Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 29 Issue 03

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Volume 29, No. 3
Pages 214 - 225

ROGER REVELLE COMMEMORATIVE LECTURE • Managing Leviathan: Conservation Challenges for the Great Whales in a Post-Whaling World

Phillip J. Clapham
Article Abstract

Perhaps no group of animals has come to better symbolize human misuse of the global environment than the great whales. Whaling killed almost three million whales in the twentieth century alone, with some populations estimated to have been reduced by 99% of their pristine abundance. Attempts to promote regulated, sustainable whaling by international agreement, notably through the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946), were almost immediately derailed by over-capitalization and profit-based self-interest. The major whaling nations used uncertainties in abundance estimates to ignore increasing evidence of population declines, and consistently exploited procedural flaws in the Convention to obstruct either the passage of rules designed to enact conservation measures or proposals for independent inspection of the industry. This major failure of regulatory efforts was exacerbated by secret, large-scale illegal whaling by the former Soviet Union and Japan that remained undisclosed for decades. Today, the status of the great whales varies widely: some species or populations are recovering strongly from exploitation, while a few others remain critically endangered. Although some whaling continues, the scale is greatly reduced from that of the twentieth century, and in this largely post-whaling world, other threats to whales are more significant. These include well-documented problems such as ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, as well as issues for which population-level impacts are unclear (ocean noise) or largely unknown. The removal of so many whales by whaling likely significantly impacted the ecosystems in which they played a major role as consumers and, through their transport and recycling of nutrients, enhanced primary productivity. As populations recover, the effect of their reintegration into the marine environment represents a fascinating issue in ecosystem dynamics. Overall (and with some notable exceptions), whale populations will likely continue to recover; however, this generally optimistic outlook is clouded by the potential for large-scale oceanic ecosystem changes precipitated by global warming.


Clapham, P.J. 2016. Managing leviathan: Conservation challenges for the great whales in a post-whaling world. Oceanography 29(3):214–225, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.70.


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