New Zealand and its subantarctic islands straddle the migration routes of the great whales. Schools of whales, including humpback, sperm and southern right whales, pass through New Zealand waters on their seasonal journeys to and from Antarctica. Their preservation is a pressing concern internationally.
Whaling in New Zealand
Whalers and sealers were among the first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand. The first shore based whaling stations were established in southern New Zealand in the late 1820s. From very early on Maori joined the whaling vessels as crew. In 1839, the peak year for New Zealand whaling, approximately 200 whaleships were working in New Zealand waters. Kororareka in the Bay of Islands was the biggest whaling port in the southern hemisphere, with 740 vessels visiting the port in 1840. After 1840 right whales were practically gone from the southern hemisphere and whaling declined.
In 1911, a whaling station using steam driven vessels and new explosive harpoon technology was established in Tory Strait by an Italian immigrant family, the Peranos, to hunt humpback whales. Hunting continued until 1963, when stocks collapsed.
In 1946 New Zealand was one of the founding members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), established to manage the world's whale resources. New Zealand left the IWC in 1969 but rejoined in 1976 and is now considered to be one of the staunchest advocates of whale conservation.
Whales are still "hunted" in New Zealand, but with cameras, not harpoons. At Kaikoura on the north-east coast of the South Island a tourist industry based on whale watching attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Decades of poorly regulated hunting has reduced populations of most of the large whales to low, and in some cases critical levels. Only the small minke whale is still relatively abundant.
To set sustainable hunting limits for whales numbers removed must be balanced by numbers of new born calves. In practice, it is very difficult to gather reliable information about populations and growth rates of the various species.
As the larger whales have become rare, minkes have become a target species and are hunted in the Antarctic by Japan for so-called scientific research, and by Norway in commercial whaling operations the North Atlantic. The Norwegian quota for 1997 is 590 minkes, a 30 percent increase on the 1996 quota.
Whale meat is one of the most expensive foods in the world. High-quality minke whale tail meat reportedly sells in Tokyo for about NZ $350 per kilo.
Several countries allow subsistence hunting of whales by indigenous peoples living in the remote Arctic regions of Alaska, Siberia and Greenland. The International Whaling Commission allows a "subsistence harvest" from some whale populations, providing the annual hunt does not prevent the recovery of the populations. However, stocks of the smaller toothed whales hunted by indigenous peoples in the Arctic may be unable to sustain current levels of hunting.
Inhabitants of the Faroes Islands drive ashore and kill pilot whales which come close to their coastline, killing between 700 and 2000 whales each year despite international opposition. The Faroese claim that the IWC has no jurisdiction over the hunt.
In 1982 the IWC voted for a moratorium on commercial whaling. The moratorium has been in place since 1986. Having objected to the decision, Norway is not bound by it. There is also pressure by Japan to resume commercial whaling. The IWC is developing a procedure to be used to calculate catch limits for commercial whalers, should the moratorium ever be lifted.
Other issues affecting whales are addressed through regular scientific workshops on such subjects as population studies, humane killing methods, chemical pollutants, climate change and ozone depletion.
Leading in whale protection
In 1946 New Zealand was one of the founding members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), established to manage the world's whale resources. In 1969, New Zealand withdrew from the IWC as we had stopped taking whales by this time.
Then in the 1970s, growing international concern about the conservation of whales motivated New Zealand to rejoin on 15 June 1976 and we are now considered to be one of the staunchest advocates of whale conservation.
In 1982 the IWC voted for a moratorium on commercial whaling and in 1994 established the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Combined with the Indian Ocean Sanctuary established by the IWC in 1979, almost a third of the world's oceans are now a whale sanctuary.
All marine mammals within New Zealand's 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone are protected under the 1978 Marine Mammals Protection Act and New Zealand is recognised as a world leader in marine mammal protection.