In the “The conservation of whales in the 21st century”
New Zealand’s experience of whaling mirrors that of many other countries: whaling became New Zealand’s first European-style industry, attracting whalers and sealers from 1791. Whales were so abundant that whalers would anchor in east coast bays and wait for southern right whales to arrive within sight of shore.
From the mid-1820s whaling stations were set up on shore to process the increasing volume of catch. In 1840, when the industry was at its peak, 740 whaling ships visited New Zealand’s then main port of Russell.
From an estimated population of 15,000 animals a few decades earlier, “bay whaling” led to the near-extinction of southern right whales in New Zealand waters. The peak years were between 1837 and 1842. By 1860 the southern right whale industry had collapsed. Even today, despite 80 years of full protection, the surviving New Zealand population (found mainly in its sub Antarctic waters) numbers no more than 1000 individuals.
Whaling led economic activity in the early New Zealand colony and was the main point of contact between Maori and European cultures. While New Zealand Maori did not traditionally hunt large whales, many joined European whaling crews and later set up their own shore-based stations. The growing contact between the two cultures through whaling was part of the reason for the British Crown and Maori signing the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.
New Zealand’s early whaling industry was completely unregulated. Whalers took every whale they could, including mothers and calves.
New Zealand stocks of the faster-swimming great whales, such as humpback, fin and sei, were also depleted by hunting. This took place not only during their migrations along the New Zealand coastline but also on their feeding grounds in the Ross Sea and the Southern Ocean.
New Zealand did not send whaling vessels to the Antarctic, but in the early 1900s Norwegian whalers used Stewart Island as a repair base for the catcher boats of its Ross Sea fleet.
In 1910 whaling stepped up a level with the introduction of steam-powered chaser boats. The most successful of these operations was in Tory Channel, at the northern tip of the South Island, which each season processed 100-200 humpback whales caught in Cook Strait, between the North and South Islands.
New Zealand was an early member of the IWC, acceding to the ICRW in 1949. New Zealand ceased whaling in 1964, when the Tory Channel station closed. Humpback whales had ceased migrating through Cook Strait and commercial whaling was no longer viable. New Zealand left the IWC in 1968.