The ruthless efficiency of industrial whaling has finally been quantified

The bulk of the damage was done in the Southern hemisphere, researchers say.
The bulk of the damage was done in the Southern hemisphere, researchers say.
Image: Reuters/Alister Doyle
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The era of global whaling evoked in Moby-Dick came to an end in the early 1900s. Then the real slaughter began: With mechanized harpoons and motorized boats, a few countries killed more whales during the 20th century than the whole world did in the years before. The total number of kills is close to 3 million, according to newly published research (pdf).

Researchers have had trouble quantifying this previously because they don’t trust that the nations engaged in industrial whaling, a practice that continues today, report their catches accurately. The new calculations are possible partly because of deft detective work by scientists Yulia Ivashchenko and Phillip Clapham, a husband-and-wife duo who uncovered lost Soviet records revealing decades of illegal and unreported whaling. The former Soviet Union killed more than half a million whales between 1900 and 1999, and kept more than a third of those kills (178,811 of them) secret.

The paper that Ivashchenko and Clapham just published with Robert Rocha is the first accounting of total kills from industrial whaling. Rocha told Nature magazine that the official estimate of “nearly 2.9 million large whales killed and processed between 1900 and 1999” is a “lower bound” estimate that doesn’t account for mortally wounded animals that escaped or were otherwise unrecorded.

Rocha is the director of science at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. New Bedford was the world capital of pre-industrial, or Moby-Dick era, whaling. Pre-industrial whalers, aided by nothing but the wind in their sails and the muscles of their men, killed roughly 300,000 sperm whales during the 18th and 19th centuries. Another 761,523 sperm whales were killed in the 20th century, by which time whaling was heavily concentrated in the southern hemisphere—throughout the South Pacific and Antarctic waters. (The southern hemisphere accounts for 2.05 million of the 2.9 million in whale kills estimated to have occurred in the last century.)

19th-century whaling. (Circa 1852)
19th-century whaling. (Circa 1852)
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Brooklyn Museum

Fin whales, “the greyhounds of the sea,” swam too fast for pre-industrial whalers to catch. When the next generation of whale hunters went to sea with exploding harpoons and faster boats, things changed. Nearly 875,000 finbacks were killed during the 1900s, more than any other species.

Modern-day whaling. (This photo, of a Minke whale captured by a Japanese boat, was taken in 2008.)
Modern-day whaling. (This photo, of a Minke whale captured by a Japanese boat, was taken in 2008.)
Image: Reuters/Australian Customs

Russia, Japan, Iceland, and Norway are the countries that have killed the most whales since 1900.  Denmark, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, China, and the United States have also contributed. Some of this killing was sanctioned, for scientific or cultural purposes, by international governing bodies such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the UN. Some of it was not.

For example, after the hunting of Blue whales was outlawed in 1966, more than 1,300 were killed in the following years—mostly by Soviet whalers, according to this study, solving a mystery that Quartz’s Gwynn Guilford alluded to in 2014.

Establishing and enforcing sanctions on whaling depended on accurate information about how many whales were alive and had been killed each year; the process was effectively thwarted, though, by countries misrepresenting the extent of their hunting. ”Whaling management in the 20th century was an interminable debate about the status of stocks until all doubt was removed,” the study’s authors wrote. “And so were most of the whales.”