Thanks to pressure from former whaling nations like the United States, the International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. Three decades later, only a handful of countries – including Norway, Japan, and Iceland - continue to actively hunt and kill whales for commercial profit. Experts argue, however, that despite the anti-whaling sentiments that drive its conservation policies, the United States – just like Norway, Japan, and Iceland – should still be considered a whaling nation.

“These days, it's not US whaling ships but US fishing vessels doing the killing.”

"The word whaling is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as 'the action, practice or business of catching whales'," writes Michael Moore, Director of the WHOI Marine Mammal Center in an editorial published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science recently. "Importantly, this means that the unintentional capture and killing of whales is, by that definition, whaling."

These days, argues Moore, it's not US whaling ships but US fishing vessels doing the killing – albeit entirely by accident. Accidental entanglement in fishing gear, otherwise termed 'bycatch', is responsible for the deaths of over a quarter of a million whales and dolphins each year. And it's by no means just the US fishing industry that's the problem; intense fishing practices the world over, conducted by both pro- and anti-whaling nations, are resulting in fatal whale entanglements. Despite global efforts to keep whales out of fishing gear, this form of 'unintentional whaling' is on the rise.

25 02 2014 Whale Tangled In Fishing Line
Wildlife officials recently freed this North Atlantic right whale from over 100 yards of heavy fishing rope just off Georgia’s Wolf Island. This type of entanglement is responsible for the deaths of over a quarter of a million whales and dolphins each year. Image: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division

Death by entanglement is a gruesome fate. Unlike the killing methods of modern whalers involving explosive harpoons, a rope wrapped around a fluke or stuck in a whale’s jaw will result in a prolonged and painful death. Entangled whales, slowed down by the drag of the heavy gear, are unable to swim well enough to find and capture their food. The lines eat into the whale’s flesh, causing infections and compromising their immune systems. A recent study showed that Northern right whales entangled by fishing gear take an average of 6 months to die.

From an animal welfare perspective, the level of suffering inflicted on whales by the commercial fishing industry is extremely problematic. "Were they dogs … with that kind of trauma or with that kind of timeline of their demise from interacting with an industry … I find it very hard to believe that that industry would wish to carry on," suggested Moore in an interview with Oceanus Magazine. "That isn’t the case for the [fishing] industries. Out of sight is out of mind."

25 02 2014 Entangled Whale Rescue
The whale off Georgia’s Wolf Island was lucky - wildlife officials managed to cut away most of the rope (although a small portion probably remained entangled in his baleen, and his ultimate fate won't be known until - or if - he is seen again). Image: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division

Suggesting that the United States, together with other anti-whaling nations, is complicit in whaling due to their fishing practices is sure to raise some eyebrows. But Moore is hoping that it will also raise the public's awareness of this growing threat to cetaceans. He points out that it's the public's appetite for seafood that is part of the problem. "I’ve spent over 15 years examining these animals and feel pretty frustrated in terms of the fact that our consumption of seafood is driving these cases to exist," Moore told Cape Cod Today.

Moore is hopeful that solutions can be found. Modifying fishing gear to make it easier for the whales to break free would help, as well as reducing the length of fishing seasons. In recent decades, the governments of many nations have been working with the fishing industry and directly with fishermen in order to devise solutions meant to prevent whale entanglements. But will these efforts be enough to curb the rise in whale deaths? "Wherever there is substantial deployment of fishing gear around the world, there is unintended but inevitable whale mortality," suggests Moore.

As the global commercial fishing industry continues to expand, scientists and fishermen will need to find ways to keep whales out of nets. If they can’t, the modern plague of 'unintentional whaling' threatens to eradicate vulnerable whale species just as efficiently as any harpoon.