Many baleen whales are endangered from over-hunting. The decimation of the world's great whales by the whalers of many nations reached its peak in the middle years of this century has now been curbed. But because of decades of overhunting, some species of whales have been driven to critically low levels. Seven out of the eleven great whale species are considered to be endangered or vulnerable even after 30 or more years of "protection" from whaling. Since the moratorium came into effect in 1985-1986, Japan has killed over 2,400 minke whales for so-called scientific purposes, including 330 in 1995 in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Norway, which lodged an objection to the moratorium, has killed 287 whales under the guise of science, and hunted for commercial purposes 1,117 whales from a badly depleted minke population. Baleen whales continue to be threatened by the illegal whale-meat trade. Whale meat commands high prices in Japan and this demand fuels illegal trade in several countries.
Mysticeti or baleen whales include blue whales, humpback whales, gray whales and right whales. These "great whales" are among the largest animals on earth. Baleen whales are larger than the toothed whales and have two blow holes. Female baleen whales are larger than the males. Baleen whales evolved about 35 million years ago, during the early Oligocene Epoch. The earliest baleen whale fossils are from New Zealand. The Mysticeti or "baleen or whalebone whales" are named after their feeding apparatus; a series of transverse plates of comb-like baleen (made of similar material to that of the human fingernail) which descend from the roof of the mouth and serve to strain plankton and small fish. Other distinctive characteristics of the baleen whales include a symmetrical skull with no melon (the apparatus used by odontocetes for echolocation) and a pair of nasal cavities.
Between 1993 and 1997, TRAFFIC investigators found baleen whale meat on sale in South Korea, even though all baleen whales are protected under Appendix 1 of CITES. Whale meat has also been intercepted being exported from Norway to South Korea. A 1994-1996 investigation by Earthtrust and The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that whale meat on sale in Japan came from a wide variety of large and small cetaceans, including endangered humpback whales.