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New Threats Endanger Great Whales

World Wildlife Fund


The great whales remain endangered despite protection efforts from escalating dangers, including:

  • marine pollution from sources such as pesticide run-offs
  • habitat and feeding ground degradation by activities such as oil exploration
  • fisheries, e.g., entanglement in fishing gear
  • marine temperature changes due to factors like global warming

July 2001

More than half of great whale species are in trouble.

The Humpback’s population fell by an estimated 90% before a whaling moratorium was introduced in 1966. Creative Commons: Michael Dawes

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.

At the dawn of the new millennium a series of emerging threats endanger the survival of the great whales according to a report released by WWF, the conservation organization.

The report, Wanted Alive! Whales in the Wild, says that seven of the thirteen great whale species remain endangered or vulnerable despite decades of protection. Alarm is now growing over other sometimes hidden hazards that could put more species of whales on the endangered list.

Climate change is a new addition to threats to whales.

“Whales are falling prey to new and ever-increasing dangers,” said Elizabeth Kemf, WWF’s Species Conservation Information Manager and co-author of the report. “They are:

  • killed or maimed during ship collisions
  • menaced by toxic contamination
  • entangled in fishing gear
  • [threatened by] intensive oil and gas development in feeding grounds
  • [vulnerable to] the effects of climate change and habitat degradation.

Pollution impacts

Industrial chemicals have been found in Baleen whales’ milk fed to their calves.

Evidence is growing that industrial chemicals and pesticide run-offs are potentially one of the gravest threats to the whales’ survival. According to the latest research, baleen whales are increasingly affected by chemicals accumulating in their blubber, which slowly release into their milk when they migrate to winter calving grounds.

Gray whales are extinct in the Atlantic.
There are less than 200 gray whales in the Pacific.

These often invisible risks are becoming apparent at a time when whales are still struggling to recover from the years of overhunting that drove many species to the brink of extinction. The Atlantic population of gray whales actually became extinct, and the Eastern North Atlantic right whale population was so severely depleted that it is on the verge of disappearing from the planet. Scientists estimate the critically endangered Western North Pacific gray whale numbers at between 100 to 200 animals. Other cetaceans, including dolphins and porpoises, have also dropped to critically low levels.

Hunting impacts

Although it is banned, 1,000 whales are killed for profit each year.

Whale hunting is also still continuing, despite the declaration of a moratorium on commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1985-86. “If whaling cannot be ended or brought under very tight international regulation, it remains a potentially serious danger for the remaining whales, together with all the other mounting threats,” said Cassandra Phillips, WWF’s Senior Policy Adviser on whales and Antarctica and co-author of the report. Each year over 1,000 whales are still being hunted for the commercial market, and since the moratorium came into effect, some 21,573 whales have been killed as of April this year.

Whale Watching: a solution?

Whale watching is a lucrative ecotourism industry.

WWF is encouraging carefully controlled whale watching as an economically beneficial alternative to hunting. In 2000 it attracted some nine million enthusiasts in 87 countries, and generated a record-breaking US$1billion in revenue. The income earned by the industry has doubled in only six years. In Iceland, whale-watching passenger numbers have grown from just 100 in 1991 to 44,000 in 2000. “Recent analysis suggests that the economic value to the Icelandic economy of whale watching may now exceed what would be gained if Iceland resumed commercial whaling,” added Mrs. Phillips.

A call to action

Conclusion: WWF calls for urgent measures, such as whale sanctuaries, to save the great whales.

The WWF report also calls for a number of actions to be taken to protect whales. These measures should include:

  • reducing marine pollution, establishing international control over the management of whaling
  • ending the abuse of scientific whaling and whaling with factory ships on the high seas
  • maintaining the ban on the international trade in whale meat
  • and creating more whale sanctuaries and marine protected areas

Editor’s Note, January 2007:
Whale hunting is again making headlines around the world. A renewed threat from “scientific whaling” has received criticism in the recent media and some conservation organizations are making appeals to ban this type of exploitation of endangered and threatened species.

The mission of WWF (World Wildlife Fund) is to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature. Since it was founded in 1961, WWF has become one of the world’s largest and most effective independent organizations dedicated to the conservation of nature. It has reached this status through a constant record of conservation achievements. WWF now operates in around 100 countries, supported by nearly five million people worldwide. Its initials and famous Panda logo have become a powerful rallying point for everyone who cares about the future of the planet and wants to help shape it in a positive way.

New Threats Endanger Great Whales

The WWF report: Wanted Alive! Whales in the Wild

Read the report mentioned in the article above.

Threatened Species Account: Whales

Download the entire ‘Cetaceans (Whales) Threatened Species Account’ by the WWF for the latest, detailed information, which includes distribution and population statistics.

Whales of the world

Find out about the whales of the world, take an interactive dip into the ocean to see them, view photos of whales, or learn about whale history and whale watching.


This marine mammal site provides complete background information on every species of whale, dolphin and porpoise known. 6/25/09:currently unavailable. Site set to relaunch Summer 09.

Whale facts

Whale facts, information, sounds, pictures, and postcards for whales enthusiasts.

Whale quiz

What is your whale IQ? Explanatory answers provided.

Campaign Whale

This non-profit whale protection organization offers a variety of ways in which you can help — from becoming a member to signing petition letters.

Cetacean Society International

View current action alerts and updates, read recent reports and release proposals and get the latest information on cetacean issues from around the world.

Coalition for No Whales in Captivity

This grass-roots group “believes that whales are best left to live wild and free in their natural habitat.” Their site provides information on their newest campaigns, as well as ongoing ones.

International Fund for Animal Welfare

The organization has several campaigns to choose from, including one to stop whaling. Or you can choose the nation-specific way to participate by clicking on the flags in the top menu bar.

Action alerts from Whales on the Net

Choose from a variety of actions to protect whales and stop whaling practices. original lesson

This lesson has been written by a science educator to specifically accompany the above article. It includes article content and extension questions, as well as activity handouts for different grade levels.

Lesson Title: Great Whales: A Whale of a Problem
Levels: middle school - high school
Summary: This lesson looks at sub-orders and different species of whales, and examines threats to their survival. Students can take a whale quiz, create sea mammal conservation posters, map whale migration routes … and more!

Download/view lesson. (To open the lesson’s PDF file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader free software.)

Useful links for educators

In addition to the links in the “learn more” section above:

Useful links for student research

In addition to the links in the “learn more” section above:

General References:

  • » The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species at:
  • » Carwardine M., Hoyt E., Ewan Fordyce R. and Gill P. 1998. Whales and Dolphins. Harper Collins, London UK.
  • » Evans P.G.H. 1987. The Natural History of Whales and Dolphins. Christopher Helm, London, UK.
  • » Kemf E., Phillips C., and Baragona, K. 2001. “Wanted alive! Whales in the wild” (WWF Species Status Report). WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature, Gland, Switzerland.


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