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Freakonomics Radio

550. Why Do People Still Hunt Whales?

Thu Jul 20 2023
WhalingConservationInternational Whaling CommissionAnti-whaling ActivismJapanese Whaling


The episode explores the history of whaling, conservation efforts and controversies, and the current state of whaling. It discusses the decline of the American whaling industry, the role of technology in Norwegian whaling, and the value of whale meat in Japan after World War II. Conservation efforts led to the establishment of the International Whaling Commission and the rise of anti-whaling activism. The episode also delves into the challenges faced by Japan in resuming commercial whaling and the ongoing debate surrounding tradition and culture versus species conservation.


Whaling's Historical Significance

Whaling played a significant role in the economies of countries like Norway and Japan, representing a substantial portion of GDP at its peak. However, the decline of the industry due to factors like the rise of fossil fuels and changing public sentiment towards conservation has led to limited demand for whale meat.

Conservation Efforts and Controversies

The establishment of the International Whaling Commission and the efforts of organizations like Greenpeace and Paul Watson's Captain Paul Watson Foundation have brought attention to the issue of whaling and sparked debates about tradition, culture, and species conservation. The documentary 'The Cove' exposed the killing of whales for meat and their sale to dolphinariums, leading to widespread criticism.

Challenges Faced by Japan

Japan's decision to resume commercial whaling after leaving the International Whaling Commission has faced international pressure and scrutiny. The country argues that whaling supports local communities and has historical significance beyond just protein consumption. However, concerns about the impact on other fisheries industries and the low demand for whale meat pose challenges for Japan.


  1. The History of Whaling
  2. Conservation Efforts and Controversies
  3. Current State of Whaling and Future Challenges

The History of Whaling

00:02 - 14:46

  • Whaling has a long history, with commercial whaling practiced in Norway, Japan, and Iceland.
  • The American whaling industry collapsed due to the rise of fossil fuels and better job opportunities.
  • Norway remains the largest commercial whaler, but there isn't much demand for whale meat.
  • Norway left the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on whaling in 1992, causing controversy and protests.
  • The main justification for continued whaling in Norway is the interest of communities involved in the industry.
  • Technology played a significant role in the Norwegian whaling industry, with the use of steamships and harpoon cannons.
  • Norwegian whalers hunted whales in Antarctica, offering a new supply of larger whales.
  • Norwegian whalers used hoses and pumps to bring up whale carcasses and built floating factories for processing whale oil.
  • Whale oil was mainly used for lighting fuel and industrial lubricant but found other uses like margarine production.
  • Whale meat was always marginal but gained value after World War II in Japan.

Conservation Efforts and Controversies

14:21 - 28:32

  • After World War II, whale meat became more valuable in Japan due to food shortages.
  • General Douglas MacArthur ordered the Japanese to go all in on whale hunting to alleviate the food shortage.
  • The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 to regulate whaling.
  • The IWC set a global quota for whale hunting, leading to a surge in catching as many big whales as possible.
  • In the 1970s, there was a shift in public sentiment towards whales and conservation efforts increased.
  • The US banned commercial whaling under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • Greenpeace launched a movement called Save the Whales.
  • Paul Watson, an eco-warrior, intervened against the Soviet whaling fleet and witnessed the killing of whales for military purposes.
  • Watson's confrontational tactics led to his ousting from Greenpeace and he now operates under the Captain Paul Watson Foundation.
  • Attempts to understand whalers' perspectives have been difficult due to their reluctance to speak publicly.
  • Jay Alabaster gained the trust of Japanese whalers by involving himself in their society and giving a speech in front of them.
  • Whaling in Taiji is done using a method called drive hunt, where boats spread out and push pods towards Taiji for capture.
  • Live animals are worth more than those sold for meat, with some show animals going for tens of thousands of dollars.
  • 'The Cove', a documentary about dolphin hunting in Taiji, condemned both killing whales for meat and selling them to dolphinariums.

Current State of Whaling and Future Challenges

28:06 - 35:29

  • The Cove won the Oscar for Best Documentary, highlighting the issue of whaling in Taiji, Japan.
  • Jay Alabaster decided to get a PhD in Journalism and Mass Communications to tell the bigger story of Taiji and its whaling practices.
  • In 2019, Japan left the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resumed commercial whaling.
  • Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary defended the decision by stating that whaling has supported local communities and has historical significance beyond just protein consumption.
  • Anti-whaling activism puts pressure on small towns like Taiji, which lack international presence and social media representation.
  • Japan is concerned that if whaling ends successfully, it may lead to restrictions on other parts of their fisheries industry, particularly tuna fishing.
  • The demand for whale meat is low compared to tuna in Japan. Whale meat prices have significantly decreased over time.
  • Despite low consumption of whale meat in Japan, polls show that a majority of people support Japan's right to whale even if they don't eat it themselves.
  • Outside pressure has boosted whaling in Japan across the political spectrum due to arguments about tradition and culture.
  • Anti-whaling activist Paul Watson believes there can be no justification for any tradition or culture when a species becomes endangered.
  • While some countries have stopped whaling due to pressure, Norway, Iceland, and Japan continue despite criticism.
  • There is a living whaling culture in small communities like Taiji that view it as a sustainable practice with moral arguments against it rather than economic or environmental concerns.
  • The whaling industry is struggling to find a market with limited demand for whale meat both domestically and internationally. The number of whales killed is lower than the quota due to insufficient numbers of whalers.