More than half of the world's whale species are endangered, though you may find the causes for this surprising. According to the World Wildlife Fund, about 90% of whale deaths are caused by ship collision alone. Large oil spills resulting from these collisions can affect several miles of ocean area, fatally poisoning hundreds of different whales and other cetaceans.
Another problem that endangers whale populations around the world is bycatch. Commercial fishermen hunting smaller fish often snag large whales such as humpbacks, grays, and bowheads in their fishing equipment. Captured whales become entangled in nets, unable to reach the surface to get air. Hundreds of endangered whales found dead on beaches every year are estimated to be victims of bycatch; this tremendously high number does not include those whose bodies never make it to shore. Scientists estimate that about 68% of whales have been entangled in fishing nets at least once in their lifetime. Campaigns have been started in recent years to help educate people about the ongoing problem of whale and dolphin bycatch.
Quite surprisingly, commercial whaling is the cause of only about 4% of whale deaths worldwide. However, this seemingly small number is quite devastating to the diminishing populations of endangered whales. Illegal whale hunting is causing a severe decline in the populations of the gray whale, humpback whale, bowhead, blue, and North Atlantic right whale. The WWF calculates that more than 1,000 endangered whales are killed commercially each year. Norway considers itself outside the ban, and continues to hunt commercially despite new laws.
When the 1986 ban on whaling was put into effect, several countries placed objections. Eventually all were withdrawn, for varying reasons. However, since the moratorium banned only commercial whaling, Japan, the US, and many other countries have continued to hunt whales for scientific and aboriginal-subsistence purposes. In Alaska, native people legally kill about 30 bowhead whales a year during subsistence hunting times. The International Whaling Commission says this small number is not enough to affect the local populations. Some countries have accused Japan of using scientific research as a front for commercial whaling. Scientists conducting DNA studies on whale meat in Japan have found several incidents of endangered whales' meat for sale. Japan has denied the claims, citing the IWC requirement that all whale meat obtained through scientific studies does not go to waste.
Oil and gas drilling in the North Atlantic is disrupting many whale species' natural feeding habitats. Problems in the areas of habitat destruction and climate change are also growing. Campaigns and organizations such as the WWF continue their attempts to reduce or eliminate the number of bycatch incidents, ship collisions, oil spills, and illegal commercial whaling.