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Whales

Blue whale
Extinction risk:
Near threatened to critically endangered

About whales

There are 13 species of great whale and several species of smaller whales. Some species are found all over the world, others are unique to particular areas.

There are two main types of whales – ‘toothed’ and ‘baleen’.

  • ‘Toothed’ whales – like the sperm whale – have teeth and hunt fish and squid.
  • ‘Baleen’ whales – like the blue and humpback whale – do not have teeth but instead have comb-like plates that hang from the roof of their mouths and act like a sieve, filtering plankton, krill and small fish out of the water.

Despite decades of legal protection, six of the 13 great whale species are at risk of extinction.

Find out how you can help save whales

Threats to whales

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), stranded dead. Jaw broken from escape attempts.

Bycatch

Like many marine animals, whales are at risk of ‘bycatch’ – accidental entanglement in fishing gear, which can cause injury, infections, starvation and drowning.

It’s estimated that around 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die this way each year. Whales are also vulnerable to collisions with ships, which can seriously injure or even kill them.

Harbour of Skrova, a whaling community

Whaling

The main cause of decline in whale numbers historically was industrial whaling – killing whales for their meat and oil. It drove some species to the brink of extinction. This commercial whaling was banned in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the intergovernmental body responsible for whale conservation and whaling management. But whale populations still haven’t recovered.

There are loopholes in the rules that mean whales can still be hunted for 'scientific purposes', for example to understand their biology. The countries that ‘scientifically’ hunt whales – such as Japan – are also the ones trying to fuel a market for whale products. It’s believed that science permits are sometimes used simply as a disguise for commercial whaling.
 

Climate change

Climate change is an emerging threat which is also affecting fish stocks. However it will also cause other major changes within our oceans. For instance global warming is causing Arctic sea ice to melt, making areas that are important for some whales more accessible for oil and gas development, which can cause a number of problems for whales and their environment.

Climate change is also depleting some important food sources for whales – such as krill, which breed under sea ice.

Fin whale surfacing

How WWF is helping protect whales

We’re working on four main fronts to save whales: increasing protection, fighting commercial and scientific whaling, promoting more sustainable and less harmful fishing techniques, and tackling climate change

Humpback whale breaching in South East Alaska

Protected areas and sanctuaries

We’re pushing for stronger conservation measures, more protected areas, and more sanctuaries – so that whale habitat, migration routes and the whales themselves are safe.

For example, we vigorously campaigned for the creation of the substantial international whale sanctuary surrounding Antarctica, which came into being in 1994 after a historic international agreement.
 

Western gray whale with oil platform in the background

Cetacean Species Action Plan

In 2005, we introduced our Cetacean Species Action Plan, the first global conservation plan for all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). It addresses all the key threats to whales. 

Harbour of Skrova, a whaling community

End ‘scientific’ whaling

We’re campaigning for an end to ‘scientific’ whaling through the International Whaling Commission (IWC). We play an active role at IWC conferences. 

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions

We work with governments, industries and individuals to help reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and encourage them to switch to renewable energy – in order to minimise climate change and the effect it has on the Arctic and Antarctic

How you can help protect whales