Whaling is the hunting of whales primarily for meat and oil. Its earliest forms date to at least 3000 BC. Various coastal communities have long histories of sustenance whaling and harvesting beached whales. Industrial whaling emerged with organized fleets in the 17th century; competitive national whaling industries in the 18th and 19th centuries; and the introduction of factory ships along with the concept of whale harvesting in the first half of the 20th century.
As technology increased and demand for the resources remained, catches far exceeded the sustainable limit for whale stocks. In the late 1930s, more than 50,000 whales were killed annually and by the middle of the century whale stocks were not being replenished. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling so that stocks might recover.
While the moratorium has been successful in averting the extinction of whale species due to overhunting, contemporary whaling is subject to intense debate. Pro-whaling countries, notably Japan, wish to lift the ban on stocks that they claim have recovered sufficiently to sustain limited hunting. Anti-whaling countries and environmental groups say whale species remain vulnerable and that whaling is immoral, unsustainable, and should remain banned permanently.
Whaling began in prehistoric times and was initially confined to (near) coastal waters. Early whaling affected the development of widely disparate cultures – such as Norway and Japan. Although prehistoric hunting and gathering is generally considered to have had little ecological impact, early whaling in the Arctic may have altered freshwater ecology. The development of modern whaling techniques was spurred in the 19th century by the increase in demand for whale oil, sometimes known as "train oil" and in the 20th century by a demand for margarine and later meat.
Whale oil is little used today and modern commercial whaling is done for food. The primary species hunted are the common minke whale and Antarctic minke whale, two of the smallest species of baleen whales. Recent scientific surveys estimate a population of 103,000 in the northeast Atlantic. With respect to the populations of Antarctic minke whales, as of January 2010, the IWC states that it is "unable to provide reliable estimates at the present time" and that a "major review is underway by the Scientific Committee."