Historically, aboriginal communities hunted whales for subsistence purposes. Although the exact origins of non-subsistence whale hunting are difficult to pinpoint, the first Europeans known to have conducted whaling on a large-scale, commercial basis were the Basque inhabitants of the French and Spanish coastlines of the Bay of Biscay. As early as the 11th century, the Basques were targeting North Atlantic right whales. In the ensuing centuries, their efforts expanded out of the Bay of Biscay and Basque whaling boats began to roam farther up the European coast. Until the 1500s, the Basques almost completely monopolized European whaling. Eventually, other nations joined in - though at first they depended on Basque experts to guide their endeavors. Great Britain started hunting bowhead whales around the North American colonies in 1611. Japan started commercial whaling in 1675. American colonists began whaling out of Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1712.
Through the 18th and 19th centuries, various whale products such as meat, oil, teeth, ambergris (a stomach secretion used as a perfume fixative), and baleen (most famously used to stiffen corsets) became popular, which led to the industrialization of whaling across the globe. The emergence and persistence of commercial whaling through the middle of the 20th century resulted in the devastation of many great whale populations worldwide.
Major industrial whaling nations included Great Britain, the U.S., Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, and Germany. In the early 19th century, governments started to recognize the importance of "managing" whaling and whale stocks. The Bureau of International Whaling Statistics was established in 1930, and in 1931 the League of Nations drew up a Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which came into force in 1934. Following the Second World War, governments agreed to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in 1946, recognizing the "interest of the nations of the world in safeguarding for future generations the great natural resources represented by the whale stocks." The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded under the ICRW with 15 member nations, to adopt regulations on catch limits, whaling methods and protected areas using a 3/4 majority voting system. While this brought some measure of control, for the most part whaling continued unchecked, despite efforts to protect humpback and blue whales in the 1960s.
With a decline in demand for whale products and growing awareness of the role played by whales in the ecosystem, a moratorium on commercial whaling was proposed by the U.S. and agreed to at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. This eventually led to an agreement at the IWC for all commercial whale quotas to be set to zero with an effective date of 1986 for coastal and 1985/86 for pelagic (open sea) whaling seasons.
The commercial whaling moratorium was a landmark event. Before the moratorium went into effect in 1986, tens of thousands of whales were being killed annually - compared to over 33,000 whales killed for commercial gain (including for "scientific research") since. While this is still too many slaughtered whales, it is a fraction of the pre-moratorium number and, as a result, whales populations are thankfully recovering. Three nations - Norway, Iceland, and Japan - continue to hunt whales for commercial gain despite the moratorium and the widely held belief that commercial whaling is out-dated and unnecessary.