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Whaling: giant killers.

Whales, of course, are mammals. But, the industry that grew up around their capture and exploitation belongs among the world's fisheries.

There's evidence that whales were hunted and killed in prehistoric times.

There's also evidence of overfishing going back 450 years.

In the 12th century, Basques were taking whales in the Bay of Biscay, off the west coast of France. By 1550, there were so few whales left, that the whalers were sailing as far as Newfoundland in search of their quarry.

In those far off days, the ships were sailing vessels and whales were harpooned from row boats. Whaling was a risky business and many a whaler's bones lie at the bottom of the ocean. But, there was decent money to be made, so there were plenty of men ready to take the risk.

Oil could be rendered from the blubber and this was used in lamps and for lubricating machinery. The oil was later used in the making of soap, cosmetics, and margarine. Ambergris is a greyish substance, which is secreted in lumps in the sperm whale's intestine; this was highly prized as an ingredient in perfume.

Baleen is a bony substance that grows in toothless whales; this was much in demand for use in the manufacturing of corsets. Baleen was also used to make buggy whips and umbrella ribs. Skin could be turned into leather and cartilage into glue. The meat, of course, was eaten or used as animal feed. Bone could be ground up and used as fertilizer. Whale intestines were turned into fishing line and even clothing.

By the middle of the 19th century, whaling was a huge industry. The Americans, Norwegians, Dutch, Russians, British, and Japanese were the leading whaling nations, but many others took part. The only restriction on the whaler's catch was the number of whales available.

When one whaling ground was depleted, the whalers exploited another. Even with the primitive methods used, many species were hunted to the brink of extinction.

Then in the 1860s, a Norwegian named Svend Foyn invented the harpoon gun and the steam-powered catcher boat. The new harpoon was made of metal and had a delayed-action explosive head. Once the harpoon was embedded in the whale, the bomb detonated. It was a quicker end for the whale and greatly improved the efficiency of the whalers.

Soon, whalers were having to go farther and farther in search of a catch. In the early part of the 20th century, the British, the Norwegians, and other nations sent great expeditions to hunt in the Antarctic. They were after blue, minke, finback, and sei whales.

Whaling stations were set up on South Georgia Island to process the dead animals. Then, huge factory ships were built so the whale catchers could be even more mobile. A blue whale, that might be bigger than the largest known dinosaur, could be cut up and pressure-cooked to produce oils and various meals in less than an hour.

Modern industrial efficiency was brought to the business of whaling. During the 1930s, the world's whaling fleets were killing more than 30,000 whales a year. But, Nature doesn't move as fast, and the stocks were rapidly depleted. It has been estimated that when whaling began there were 200,000 blue whales in the Antarctic; by 1965, however, the population of blues had been reduced to about 2,000.

It may seem that destroying the resource that provides your livelihood is a particularly dumb thing to do. However, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia, Colin Clark, says the whalers' strategy made financial sense. Mr. Clark's calculations suggest that when the interest rate on bank deposits is higher than the natural rate of increase of an animal population (about five percent a year for whales), it is generally more profitable to destroy the population and place the profits in a bank account than to manage the population on a sustainable basis, with a constant catch being available every year. This, of course, is one of the downsides of the capitalist system; it can be shortsighted.

Fortunately for the whales, some people were around who took a long-term view, and as early as the 1930s efforts were being made to curb the slaughter. After the Second World War, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up to manage the industry. But, the IWC member nations argued among themselves about whether certain species were facing extinction. As they argued, whaling continued unchecked.

By the mid-1960s it seemed obvious to everybody except the IWC that whales were in deep trouble. It looked as though the main purpose of the International Whaling Commission was to protect the price of whale products rather than protect the whales.

The general public started to become concerned and campaigns to "Save the Whales" gathered momentum. Some nations, such as Australia, heeded the public criticism and became ardent conservationists. Others, such as Japan, Iceland, South Korea, and Norway, ignored the protests and carried on as before.

In 1979, the IWC was dragged kicking and screaming to announce a ban on the use of factory ships in whaling operations. In 1986, it was forced to introduce an outright ban on all commercial whaling. But, the Commission has no power to enforce any decision it makes; it relies on its member nations to voluntarily go along with a moratorium. Japan and Norway sent their whalers out through a loophole in the IWC whaling ban. They argued they were allowed to hunt whales for "scientific purposes." What they wanted to do, they argued, was find out more about whales so the resource could be managed sustainably.

To most observers, this "scientific whaling" looks a lot like "commercial whaling." There's a company in Japan called Kyodo Hogei. Each year, it catches several hundred whales and receives huge grants from the Institute of Cetacean Research. The Institute takes samples of the dead whales for study and then sells 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes of whalemeat a year to the government. The money from this sale pays for the grants to Kyodo Hogei. After changing hands a couple more times, the whalemeat is bought by consumers and restaurants. The anti-whaling people say the annual catch is far in excess of what is needed for scientific purposes. Also, they point to the fact that "researched" whales end up on Japanese dinner plates, making the whole process closely resemble a commercial whaling industry, an impression that was made more real in July 2000 when Japan extended its "scientific whaling" to include sperm and Bryde's whales.

Most other countries are really ticked off by the Japanese attitude. Their whaling fleets remain tied up, honouring the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling and hoping the stocks will recover enough to permit limited catches sometime in the future. Meanwhile, the Japanese are taking whales and thereby delaying the end of the moratorium.

The United States has taken a firm stand. In 2000, it banned all Japanese boats from fishing in U.S. waters. Canada took a softer stand. Edith Dussault of Fisheries and Oceans Canada was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying: "We are not a member of the International Whaling Commission so therefore we have not taken a position."

International Whaling Commission - http:// homepages/iwcoffice/iwc. htm

Cetacean Society International - csihome.html

"The moot point is, whether Leviathan (whales) can long endure so wide a chase and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters." Herman Melville, Moby Dick, published in 1851


Bioconcentration is the process by which chemicals become more concentrated as they move up the food chain.

Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River are at the top of their particular food chain. So, the pollutants tossed into the Great Lakes and the River itself become concentrated in the animals' flesh. The bodies of dead belugas are so toxic they have to be handled in the same way that hazardous waste is handled.


Whalers gave this animal its name because it was the "right" whale to catch. Plump and slow moving, it was an easy and valuable prey. A third of its 14-metre-long body is mouth, filled with plates of baleen.

The right whale lumbers along with its mouth half open filtering out plankton, its food, through the baleen plates. It was a simple matter for whalers to row close to a right whale and plunge a harpoon into it. Once harpooned, the whale would be played like a fish until it was exhausted. Then, the whalers would move in closer and kill the animal with a lance.

Right whales used to be the most numerous whales in the North Atlantic; today, there are probably no more than 200 alive.


During the long hours at sea, whalers often whittled away at pieces of whalebone; these carvings, known as scrimshaw, are now prized by many collectors.

Canada withdrew from the International Whaling Commission in the early 1990s over concerns that it would condemn Aboriginal whaling.

Blue whale calves are about 7.5 metres long at birth and gain some 90 kilos a day on their rich mothers' milk.
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Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:May 1, 2001
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