Why are the whales endangered?

ship with fluke - jc

History of whale exploitation

Whales have been commercially hunted since the 11th century, primarily for their oil and meat.  Hunting became more widespread in the 17th century, and the industry was booming from the 1700s to the mid-1900s.  In earlier years, slower, coastal species were targeted as they were easier to catch.  Upon invention of the steam engine, faster species further offshore could easily be caught and were then exploited.  During this time, many species were hunted to the brink of extinction.

Threats whales face today

Today, some populations have become stable and even show signs of recovery.  However, many species are still considered endangered including the blue whale, fin whale, and humpback whale, despite efforts to protect them over the last several decades.

There are several threats that whales continue to face, most of which are caused by human activity.  Threats include habitat degradation, contaminants, climate and ecosystem change, disturbance from whale watching activities, noise from industrial activities (including oil drilling), illegal whaling or harvest, reduced prey abundance due to overfishing, and oil spills. 

Whale entanglement and ship strikes

Of the many threats whales face today, the biggest threats are entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes

Entanglement is a problem because of the potential impacts it has to the populations of endangered whales.  Along the west coast, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reports that an estimated average of 11 large whales were entangled per year from 2000 to 2012, and it is unknown by how much the actual numbers exceed these estimates.  Gray whales and endangered humpback whales are the most frequently reported whale species to be entangled.

Ship strikes to whales are a growing concern worldwide and, for many species, pose a threat to their population recovery.  Data from NMFS within the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries totaled 20 whales killed by ships from 1988 to 2011, with an additional 10 that were injured and possibly killed.  Actual numbers are likely higher since many strikes go undocumented.  Whales also have a tendency to sink rather than float or wash ashore where they are more apt to be found.  Ship strikes could be at least 10 times higher than documented numbers.  Endangered whales (blue, fin, and humpback whales), as well as gray whales, are the most commonly killed whales by ship strikes. 


Whales are slow to recover due, in part to their slow reproductive rate.  Whales do not reach sexual maturity until they are 5 to 10+ years and then only one calf is born about every 2 to 3 years.  This fact, coupled with the many man-made threats that whales still face, demonstrate our urgent need to help them.  Find out ways that you can help here.