In the “The conservation of whales in the 21st century

Commercial whaling began with Basques in the Bay of Biscay in the 11th century. They hunted “right” whales, so-called because they were the right whales to kill – large, slow-moving beasts that obligingly floated when dead and yielded large amounts of valuable oil, bone and baleen. By the 1600s the numbers of North Atlantic right whales had plummeted.

European expansion around the world opened up new whaling grounds. This set a pattern for the next three centuries of whalers moving from one area to the next, leaving remnant whale populations in their wake.

From the 1860s onwards, the invention of harpoon cannons, explosive-tipped harpoons, a device to make dead whales float, and factory ships to process whale carcasses at sea brought industrialisation to whaling. Whalers sailed to the Antarctic, the last frontier of whaling, where Captain James Cook had first discovered abundant herds in 1773. By the early 1900s, around 30 countries were involved in whaling but only a handful accounted for most of the catch.

Norway and Britain dominated the whaling industry until the 1950s, taking mainly blue and fin whales. Falling revenue and diminishing catches caused both countries to stop whaling in the Southern Hemisphere in the early 1960s. Although there had been a small amount of coastal whaling for centuries, Japan only started distant-water whaling just before the Second World War. Large numbers of mainly fin, sperm and sei whales were taken during the 1950s and 1960s.

Their oil and meat was especially important because of the post-war food shortage. Japan’s peak catch was 24,468 whales in 1964-65, shortly after the worldwide peak in 1961–62.

The Soviet Union concentrated on sperm whales, using their oil for specialised lubricants. The Soviets began whaling just after the Second World War, peaking a year later than Japan with 21,313 animals killed in 1965-66.

The Soviet Union and Japan were the last nations to withdraw from large-scale whaling. They were among countries lodging objections against the moratorium on commercial whaling that took effect in 1986. Japan later removed its objection.

It was revealed in 1994 that South Pacific whale stocks had been heavily affected by illegal whaling operations of the USSR. During the 1950s and 1960s Soviet whalers secretly killed thousands of whales:

  • Four Soviet factory ships in the late 1950s recorded that they had taken only 152 humpbacks when, in fact, 7207 were taken;
  • In the 1959/60 season alone, 12,900 humpbacks were illegally taken, around six times the total remaining population of humpbacks in the South Pacific;
  • The same vessels recorded 156 blue whales during the 1950s and 1960s. The true catch was later revealed to have been 1433.

The overall management of the IWC in earlier times was well summed up by Professor Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University in his 2002 book, The Future of Life. He suggests that the whaling industry has ignored the dependency of both the economy and social progress on the environmental resource base. To continue to ignore the destruction of natural resources would produce an uncertain economic future. Wilson states:

  • The dollars and cents value of a dead blue whale was based only on the measures relevant to the existing market – that is, on the going price per unit weight of whale oil and meat. There are many other values, destined to grow along with our knowledge of living Balaenoptera musculus in science, medicine and aesthetics, in dimensions and magnitudes still unforeseen. What was the value of the blue whale in AD1000? Close to zero. What will be its value in AD3000? Essentially limitless, plus the gratitude of the generation then alive to those who, in their wisdom, saved the whale from extinction.
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