50 years ago, U.S. commercial whaling was coming to an end

Excerpt from the March 6, 1971 issue of Science News

a photo of a whaling ship hauling in a catch

Commercial whaling has been banned worldwide since 1986, though some countries, including Japan (a Japanese whaling ship in Antarctica, shown), continue the practice.

jeremy sutton-hibbert/Alamy Stock Photo

cover of the March 6, 1971 issue

Whale protectionScience News, March 6, 1971

Whaling by the single remaining United States whaling firm, the Del Monte Fishing Co. of San Francisco, will probably end as the result of a proposal … to terminate licensing for hunting the finback, sei and sperm whales. The three were placed on the endangered species list last year.


During the 20th century, humans killed an estimated 2.9 million large whales. In response to those losses, countries eventually took action. Legislation passed in the 1970s effectively put a stop to commercial whaling in the United States. A worldwide ban followed in 1986, though some countries including Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to hunt the animals.

The bans have helped whale populations recover, but not enough to move these three species off the U.S. endangered species list. Sperm whales have rebounded to an estimated 450,000 individuals, sei whales number around 50,000 and finback whales have reached about 100,000. Ship collisions now pose a bigger threat to the mammals than commercial whaling (SN Online: 7/29/14).

Jonathan Lambert is a former staff writer for biological sciences, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.