Endangered Species Handbook

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Early Whaling and its Effects

     The decimation of the great whales has been going on for centuries, one species after another hunted to commercial extinction or to levels so low that it is no longer profitable to hunt them.  Atlantic Gray Whales were hunted to actual extinction as described earlier in this book, and populations of these whales that once inhabited the waters off Korea and the western Pacific were hunted until 1966, when they disappeared (Reeves et al. 1992).  In the early 1990s a Gray Whale was seen off the coast of Japan for the first time in decades, giving hope that the species might repopulate this area. 
     In the 8th century, the Basques of northern Spain hunted the Northern Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) for meat and whalebone in the Bay of Biscay, where they came to winter and have their calves.  These whales once swam along the Atlantic coasts of Europe and North America in annual migrations, spending the summers in northern waters and winters in the warm waters off Florida and Spain.  They were so named by English whalers because they were "right" for their purposes:  they were easy to kill; they yielded large quantities of oil and whalebone, which was used for women's corsets; and they floated when dead (Allen 1942).  The slow-moving Right Whales feed on plankton and krill, which they strain through baleen plates in their huge mouths.
     By 1800, almost no eastern Atlantic Right Whales survived, and whalers sailed to American waters, where New England colonists slaughtered the western population.  Where once thousands of these whales swam along coasts of eastern North America each fall, few remained after centuries of whaling (Allen 1942).  Killing of this beleaguered species continued from whaling stations off Ireland and the Hebrides in spite of catches of only 10 to 18 whales a year.  These whalers could find no more Right Whales by about 1910. Fortunately, a few remained elsewhere, but the species is the most endangered of all whales.  Still extinct in the eastern Atlantic, they number only about 350 animals in the western Atlantic.  In the eastern North Pacific, Right Whales once ranged from central Baja California, Mexico, to the Gulf of Alaska and into the Bering Sea; along the Asian coast, they were seen from the Bonin Islands north to the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983).  Today, the North Pacific population is estimated by some experts at fewer than 300, having failed to recover from early whaling (Harrison and Bryden 1988).  This species is on the edge of extinction. 
     The remnant eastern Atlantic population no longer swims close to shorelines, which are now cluttered with vacation homes, marinas and cities. Their ancestral feeding grounds are polluted, and constant boat traffic presents the threat of collisions.  Swimming far offshore, they take months to reach their wintering grounds.  A dead Right Whale calf was discovered in salt marshes in Georgia about a decade ago, probably the victim of a boat collision.  This launched a research program to locate wintering whales by air and to tag and identify them as individuals.  Dredging boats along the Georgia coast are notified when Right Whales are spotted nearby, and they must stop until the whales swim away.  Further north, another team monitors the whales off New England in the summer with spotter aircraft, notifying ship pilots of their presence (McFarling 1994).  Most collisions have taken place off Boston, where a stream of liners and giant cargo ships arrive from Europe.  Off Florida there have been fewer incidents, as the Coast Guard keeps a very careful watch by air and immediately radios any ship in the area of the whales’ location.
     Genetic analysis of the DNA of Northern Right Whales has indicated that they may be inbred and becoming sterile, having been so reduced by whaling that only a very small number of whales remain alive.  Scientists have obtained small tissue samples from these whales by firing arrows attached to lines that can be retrieved after firing.  Preliminary results indicate that all North Atlantic Right Whales may have descended from only three families on the female side and, perhaps, from as few as three individual females (Allen 1995).  Since the majority of individual whales have been identified, it is known that at least 13 of 65 sexually mature females have had no calves since 1989 (Allen 1995).  In a species that reproduces so slowly and is suffering such casualties from ship collisions, this may spell extinction.  The rate of increase for these whales is only about 2 percent.  By contrast, Southern Right Whales (Eubalaena australis) in the South Atlantic and Antarctic waters, which numbered 100,000 until they were decimated by whaling (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983), are increasing at a rate of 7 to 8 percent a year, far faster than the North Atlantic population.  However, with a population of only about 3,000, they are still highly endangered (Allen 1995).
     The Bowhead Whales (Balaena mysticetus) of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans were killed in great numbers from early times by whalers from England and the Netherlands, nearly causing the whales’ extinction (Lean and Hinrichsen 1992).  Beginning in the 17th century, on the other side of the Atlantic, whalers from Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, pursued Sperm Whales (Physeter catodon) for their valuable oil, which was used in lamps and as lubrication. With a fleet totaling 150 ships, they eliminated the majority of these whales.  Then in the 18th century, whalers discovered the enormous numbers of Sperm Whales in the Pacific.  By 1846, New England whalers had 736 ships at sea, and only the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania saved the Sperm Whales.  Right Whales, Gray Whales and Bowhead Whales of the Pacific were all mercilessly hunted until they, too, neared extinction (Allen 1942). 
     When an explosive harpoon was developed in Norway in 1865 that could be fired into a whale's body from a cannon mounted in the bow of a ship, a new wave of slaughter began (Allen 1942).  Its deadly power was soon turned on the rorquals (Humpback; Blue (Balaenoptera musculus); Fin (Balaenoptera physalus); and Sei Whales (Balaenoptera borealis) far away from shore.  These whales had been difficult for whalers to take prior to the development of the explosive harpoon because they were swift and strong swimmers of the open ocean (Allen 1942).  The new explosive harpoons, although deadly, did not kill instantly, and these whales suffered slow deaths.  The huge numbers taken by these harpoons over the next decades caused their populations to decline to commercial extinction.

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