I read this article and it seems like activists from cultures without a long history of whaling are inconsistent in their criticism of Japan for its whaling.

Many cultural cuisines like rabbits, cows, trout, pigs, chicken, reindeer or walruses are consumed without international criticism. Why does the international community strongly condemn whaling and not other forms of fishing and hunting? I'm looking for the stated reasons from environmental groups and governments that have signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.


See also the statement from the Japanese Fishery Department.

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    @JamesK considering the amount of political capital spent on urging Japan to stop whaling, it seems a political question to me.
    – Jontia
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 21:59
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    There are certainly politics involved, but the question as phrased invites biological answers: Whales are special because /endangered/intelligent/long lived/undomesticated/top predetors/. The question doesn't invite political answers
    – James K
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 22:30
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    Is the premise of this question that the farming of say, chickens, and the hunting of whales are similar in some way? What way is it? That chickens and whales are both animals? Is that the only metric being considered?
    – Leebo
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 6:28
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    @KentaroTomono Perhaps reddit.com/r/changemyview or reddit.com/r/unpopularopinion would be a better platform for your purposes.
    – LVDV
    Commented Jul 5, 2019 at 6:35
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    Are your new edits not significantly changing the nature of your question (from whale vs other animals to Japanese whale hunting vs other countries' whale hunting)?
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 6, 2019 at 4:05

11 Answers 11


I think there are two main reasons. Ethics (which does apply to dogs in many parts of the world) and the fact that there aren't that many whales (as opposed to dogs).


It's seen as immoral. This argument also applies to dogs (note, pictures may be disturbing). As such, you see a lot of outrage about dog consumption as well.

For example, these quotes from a BBC article on dog consumption in Vietnam illustrate this point:

The Hanoi People's Committee said the practice could tarnish the city's image as a "civilised and modern capital".


A growing number of people in Vietnam disapprove of eating dog meat but it still remains "very much a deep-rooted habit", according to Linh Nguyen, a journalist with the BBC's Vietnamese service.

Threatened species

The second argument doesn't apply to dogs: there aren't that many left. This raises conservationist issues as many people and countries don't think it's worth making (some species of) whales extinct just for some delicatessen.

Specifically, some species of whale are endangered (per the WWF info), meaning (from Wikipedia):

a species which has been categorized as very likely to become extinct in the near future. Endangered (EN), as categorized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, is the second most severe conservation status for wild populations in the IUCN's schema after Critically Endangered (CR).

The WWF provides some info on why whales are important for ocean life:

Whales are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Unfortunately their large size and mythical aura does not protect them; six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered, even after decades of protection.

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    @Obie2.0 I think many governments express concern over whaling, it's not some fringe stance I think. I also think it's not sustainable and one way or the other it will stop (either because they stop whaling or because they die out, not just because of whaling, but it's not helping).
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 21:46
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    "the whale is an endangered species" Whales are not a single species. Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 12:21
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    An additional point on ethics: explosive harpoons are probably a very painful way for a whale to die. People who eat meat can still ethically object to forms of slaughter which cause excessive suffering. Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 14:53
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    @PaulJohnson Exploding harpoons are actually the humane alternative to other methods, as it kills relatively quickly. The problem is however the "relative" part - a whale is just too big to effectively and quickly kill by any method. Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 20:44
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    @UTF-8 because ethics is what society makes of it. It's unethical to walk naked around Times Square while it's accepted in some tribal cultures. Indeed, ethical values vary culturally and that's why in many places whaling and dogs aren't acceptable food while pigs and cows are. Of course there are also cultures where those aren't accepted, which is due to different ethical values.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 22:17

There is an ethical argument that hasn't been mentioned yet.

Many people find whale hunting unethical (see JJJs excellent answer), despite supporting deer hunting and chicken farming, because we think whales are smart. There is a correlation between how intelligent an animal is (or we think it is), and how likely people are to oppose its hunt and consumption. The change in public opinion on whale hunting in the past 200 years falls in the same trend as the change in public opinion on dolphin or monkey shows and wild animals in circuses, both of which are banned in increasingly many countries, something few people may have understood if you proposed it 200 years ago.

The smarter the animal, the more we can relate, sympathise, or even empathise their fate, and the more we will be opposed to its mistreatment (see corporals answer on inhumane killing). The news about a whale carrying a dead baby for 16 days went around the world last year.

There are some outliers here (many people eat pig but not dog), but in general people are more likely to loudly oppose the mistreatment of whales than of chicken (there certainly is a criticism of mistreatment of chicken, but it probably happens in most of the world if not all of it).

Please also read the other answers; they contain excellent points that I don't intend to (all) repeat here. My answer is intended to be complementary to the other answers.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 2:17
  • Whales might be smart, but that isn't a political answer.
    – James K
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 6:57
  • @JamesK It certainly is, because how smart whales are affects our political prioritisation about their protection.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 7:55
  • No. It is biological fact about whales.
    – James K
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 19:58
  • @JamesK The answer is not about the biological fact that whales are smart, but about how this fact influences our political prioritisation of their protection.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 7:53

One undiscussed reason that Japanese whaling is so specifically opposed by certain nations (specifically New Zealand & Australia) is that much of the Japanese whaling happens in the Southern Ocean, near these countries but very far away from Japan. Part of the national self-image of these countries is that of custodians of the environment; New Zealand's Department of Conservation has an annual budget of $600 million NZD (0.3% of the GDP) and administers almost 30% of the total land area of the country.

This feeling of protection or custodianship extends to the oceans, and there is a perception that Japanese whalers are intruding in a place which they have much weaker ties to and thus less reason to care if they irreparably damage the environment. This feeling is not entirely unique to whaling, news stories in NZ about foreign fishing boats in NZ waters exceeding quotas and overfishing are also somewhat common and result in similarly negative reactions from the public. The main difference in that case is that they tend to be individual commercial entities from a range of countries, not a program directly sponsored by the government of one particular country.

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    I might choose yours since yours is completely unique and comprehensible.
    – user7598
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 20:15
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    @KentaroTomono I personally think that some of the other answers are more worthy as they cover a wider range of reasoning, I just wanted to include this perspective
    – llama
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 20:47
  • It should be easy to check this answer against reality: Japan announced to start commercial whaling recently, but limit this to its own territorial waters. According to the reasoning in this answer, NZ and Australia would welcome this decision...
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 23:13
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    @llama just to add, the other issue is that where Japan chooses to whale (in the Southern Ocean) is called the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and in order to work around the provisions Japan calls their activities scientific research.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 7:46
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    It could also be noted that New Zealand was for a long period an active whaling nation itself, ending in 1964 and only making it illegal in 1978. Hence it is decrying practices that have themselves become unacceptable within the nation itself over time. It isn't simply attacking the cultural practices of other countries that it has no historical traditions of or understanding. So New Zealand and other members of the IWC have some moral standing on these issues. The IWC was after all founded as a collection of whaling states, initially to make the practice sustainable. Commented Jul 5, 2019 at 0:20

I would disagree with your initial statement "Many cultural cuisines like rabbits, cows, trout, pigs, chicken, reindeer or walruses are consumed without international criticism", at least in spirit.

There are protests, within and across national boarders, about the hunting or eating of certain groups of animals, including those in your list. Cows are farmed, not hunted, but several groups protest against this (such as PETA). There are also multiple reports of people being killed by lynch mobs in India on suspicion of harming or slaughtering cows, for example.

There are also protests and laws protect various endangered animals from hunting, including seals(which several populations claim hunting of as part of their cultural heritage), trout(highly regulated where I am from), and rabbits, such as the Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi) of Kagoshima Prefecture of Japan.

Instead, I would say that whale hunting is the "loudest" protest against hunting, especially on the international stage for a couple of reasons:

1) Whales are endangered, and are actively hunted. I think, although the resources collected are different, a good comparison might be the hunting of ivory of elephants and rhinos, which garners a large amount of international press and condemnation, at least where I am.

2) Whales are "photogenic", and thus garner more public support: better adjectives might include cool, majestic, exotic or cute. This is a general trend: we hear more about efforts to save, e.g. endangered Pandas, turtles, elephants and gorillas, then we do about efforts to save equally or more endangered species of mice, ferrets, crustaceans, spiders(kill them with fire!), or flies.

3) Whales live in/travel through international waters. As such, lobbies for their protection need to be international in nature to be effective. Lobbying for the protection of animals that have smaller geographical footprints tends to be more effective if targeted to a specific nation or nations. For example, monarch butterflies migrate between the US and Mexico, and so there has been a lot of successful lobbying to grant them protections on both sides of the border.

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    +1 for addressing the flawed premise that other types of hunting do not go "without international criticism." While point (1) has been mentioned in other answers, points (2) and (3) are important contributors too. Commented Jul 5, 2019 at 17:35
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    The term you are looking for in point 2) is "charismatic megafauna"
    – arp
    Commented Jul 5, 2019 at 20:05
  • #3, international waters and (Monarch) migration, +1. OP names no other animal that travels halfway around the world to procreate. Start killing them at either location and they all die.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 6, 2019 at 2:49
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    @KentaroTomono - TIL Google says, "Norway is now hunting a higher proportion of breeding females which could put the long-term survival of minke whales in the North Atlantic in severe danger." - can we expect them to be under the same scrutiny? Probably not. Protesting in the North Atlantic sucks; it's cold. That would be why imo "fanatics" are so focused on Japan, historically for good reason, but now because if you get sprayed with the water cannon, you'd freeze to death if you haven't already anyway.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 6, 2019 at 14:26
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    "Why does the peace boat always attack japan?" - see above (literally ;). Bullet point #4 - The North Sea is cold AF.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 6, 2019 at 14:37

There is no reliably humane way to kill whales according to the New Zealand government.

The article starts with the statement: "Experience has shown that it is very difficult to kill a whale at sea humanely; that is, by causing minimum pain or instantaneous death."

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    I am imagining other commercial fishing, where small fish are caught in huge nets and raised out of the water ... I am not aware of a similar stance for humane fish slaughter : "However, most fish harvesting continues to use methods like suffocation in air, carbon-dioxide stunning, or ice chilling that may not optimise fish welfare in some instances." Your answer doesn't seem to wholly explain the discrepancy between the outcry for whales vs. other marine life - it also involves the determining of which species "should" be killed humanely
    – katatahito
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 6:39
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    @katatahito Whales are mammals. Usually, mammals are given more rights than non-mammals like fish, because they are more closely related to humans and probably feel more pain. Where I live you would not be allowed to suffocate or otherwise slowly kill mammals so it makes sense to extend that protection to whales.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 7:48
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    Exactly, that should be added to the answer - that these countries consider it more pressing to end suffering for mammals over non-mammals. This may be a discrepancy in culture that is then ultimately the root cause.
    – katatahito
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 7:59
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    This, coupled with the fact that many species of whale are threatened pretty much sums it up, imo.
    – Time4Tea
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 18:38
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    @Nobody "and probably feel more pain" (citation needed).
    – Pharap
    Commented Jul 6, 2019 at 0:47

Modern day commercial whaling did not exist until the industrial revolution. Due to the technological advancement, the economic production scale of food, lubricant and energy, whaling is no longer economically viable. Today, the whaling industry in Japan is heavily subsidised.

The main argument of the subsidies is said to be cultural, but it is a blatant excuse. In many places, the scale of today's whaling is nothing compared to things that happened in history. In addition, human culture continues to change to adapt to the world around us. Something that is the norm in history (imagines history, cannibalism) is no longer accepted by global society.

The main reason for countries that subsidise and maintain whaling are none other than geopolitical reasons: maintaining the sea powers.

Even today, humanity seems to enter the post-colonisation era, sea power is still the doctrine of many national policies.

Some people may argue how a few whaling boats can help a country acquire arbitrary sea power. A good political hint is looking International Whaling Commission member countries composition. You will see the non-whaling country countries with shores like Cambodia, China, India, Oman; Land-locking countries like Hungary, Laos, Mali, Slovia republic, Switzerland, etc. Such political driven activity is no different than China building concrete Island across the dispute region, the existence of the whaling boat is a metaphor of the sea power.

If OP insists answer to the question: "What is the fundamental difference between catching whales and hunting other animals?", here is the summary :

  • Whaling is carbon intensive, it is not economical.
  • Traditional cuisine has little to do with cultural, but mostly survival. Whale meat is an acquired taste.
  • Due to a whale long lifespan, whale meat accumulate all sort of contaminants.
  • Those notorious whaling countries that claim to "preserved tradition" failed to deal with invasive species in their countries. You never heard their government ask them to "eat all invasive species to preserve ecology".
  • Whale feces is important to ocean ecology. A school of whale have a strong ecology impact that spans thousands of kilometers.
  • The highly valued whale ambergris active content can be synthesis cheaply. The perfume industries have not reasons to use them except for marketing purpose.
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    How does maintaining a whaling fleet increase control of the seas? Ownership through use?
    – Jontia
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 12:06
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    @Jontia Yes. The old European way.
    – mootmoot
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 12:17
  • @DavidRicherby Those are a long philosophy question that enough to write a few books.
    – mootmoot
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 12:27
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    It's very strange to suggest that having an active whaling fleet somehow grants Japan increased geopolitical clout. If that were true, why is China not establishing a massive whaling program?
    – March Ho
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 14:42
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    I'm not sure I understand how whaling boats provide any better method of sea power than other fishing boats.
    – JAB
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 22:27

I'm only going to try to cover things that haven't been mentioned in other answers and try to preempt any begging of the question that might come.

There are environmental and practical concerns to eating certain animals that don't apply to the same degree as other animals.

For example, pretty much all meat provided by domesticated animals come from prey animals, this means that less energy is lost as they are grown since they're lower on the trophic level. Meat that is "harvested" from the wild tends to be relegated to commercial fishing, where the large majority of fish is again, not placed at the top of the food chain. From this perspective, eating chicken is superior to eating beef, and eating anchovies is superior to eating swordfish.

Whales are either apex predators or filter feeders that have no natural predators. They are as a group the physically largest animals that exist on Earth. Eating them is highly inefficient from the perspective of obtaining cheap efficient calories (you basically can't get worse than eating whale). Allowing only market forces to regulate this (I expect whale meat would be quite expensive), is not enough since the externalities involved in losing large amounts of whales would not be calculated into their sale.

Since there is already an answer stating that only cultural differences apply when choosing among a variety of meat animals, I will point out another problem (though it doesn't really apply very well to whales in particular). The consumption of certain animals are more dangerous when it comes to public health, generally this applies to animals more closely related to the predator, which is why you see things like Ebola breakouts in Africa, where people are still in contact with various large primates (and occasionally eats them). Following the logic that all meat is equal would mean that something like the ritualized cannibalism of dead relatives is equivalent to eating pork (cannibalism might even be morally superior under various ethical frameworks assuming you didn't kill your relative and did kill the pig). However human flesh is statistically much deadlier than pork and it's probably a bad idea to engage in cannibalism when you have safer sources of food around. To relate this Japan it would be better to look at the sale of the Japanese Pufferfish, which is either banned or highly regulated across the world because its body is full of neurotoxins. The fact that there is still private demand for something that can be considered a "cultural cuisine", doesn't preempt government regulation or mean that the regulation is attempt to impose foreign values on native cultures.

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    >The consumption of certain animals are more dangerous when it comes to public health, generally this applies to animals more closely related to the predator, which is why you see things like Ebola breakouts in Africa, where people are still in contact with various large primates (and occasionally eats them). Are you sure that eating whales is damaging to our human being's health? Please look at this site [ luna.pos.to/whale/jwa_v8_suzu.html ], it says,
    – user7598
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 3:03
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    @KentaroTomono I said that it didn't apply to whale at the start of that paragraph, it was a response to the false equivalency of all meat products being the same.
    – Teleka
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 3:08
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    What does the size of Americans have to do with whether whale hunting should be regulated?
    – Leebo
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 6:31
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    I thoroughly approve of your mention of externalities.
    – M i ech
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 8:24
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    So much wrong here. Minke whales are no more of a 'trophic level' concern than eating tuna or salmon. They are also prey for both Orcas and sharks. From an efficiency standpoint, they are a lot of calories for a single kill - there is little evidence that they cannot be cost-effective (there does exists commercial hunting). I cannot find any evidence that they constitute an exceptional health hazard. Ebola has nothing to do with this whatsoever (of which bats are a big viral reservoir by the way - not significantly caused by apes). This answer is a gish-gallop of unsupported nonsense. Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 14:31

One of the main things that makes whale hunting an international issue, rather than a domestic issue (which also results in it also receiving greater news coverage worldwide), is that whales predominantly live in "international waters" which aren't subject to the jurisdiction of any one country.

Even when whales are in a country's national waters, they are usually there only temporarily.

Whale hunting is therefore a matter in which essentially all countries that aren't landlocked can claim an interest, which can only be regulated through international law and diplomacy.

In contrast, the hunting of terrestrial animals and animals that live in most fresh water lakes and rivers can be handled with domestic law. Even oceanic animals like sea lions, are often much more coastal and have much more narrow geographic ranges than whales.

Migratory bird hunting, like whale hunting, is also inherently multinational and is subject to international treaty regulation (one such treaty dates to 1918) and involves international action.


I think no one mentioned the actual kill of whales compared to how other animals are killed/slaughtered: killing a whale is usually a quite time consuming activity while a good shot at a e.g. a seal or a moose kills the animal before it even notices what happened (there is also protests against unnecessary cruel ways of killing/hunting other animals, e.g. boiling them alive, using a bow rather than a gun, letting the animal bleed to death in ritual slaughter and so on). Personally, this is my main objective against whaling. If there was a method to kill whales that was instantaneous it would feel much better for me).


Whaling is more controversial simply because it's more typical to slaughter other animals.

You probably eats pig, cows, and chickens. You may know some deer hunter. But... almost nobody eats whale meat. Therefore, due to lack of cognitive dissonance, pictures of whaling are more impactful than pictures of pig slaughter.


I am adding this comment as these were not brought up in other answers.

  • Tyranny of the Majority as well as Dominance/racism.
  • Property Rights.

Majority of rabbits and dogs are raised as livestock with definitive property rights. Whales are only hunted and migrate through international waters. Even rabbits that are hunted are hunted with state approval through licensing with all rules that said licensing entails.

Different dominant cultures have imposed their views on other cultures throughout history. The majority of those in the west abhor dog and horse used as livestock and have made laws in their countries outlawing such practices. Now they want to push their views worldwide.

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