Endangered Species Handbook

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Factory Ship Whaling

     Whalers then turned to the Antarctic where vast numbers of Blue, Humpback, Sei and Fin Whales migrated each summer to feed on the abundant krill.  In 1903, the first "floating factory" whaling ship sailed from Spitzbergen, Norway.  These ships, when moored near a land base, could process whales brought alongside by small killer boats.  The initial victims of these new ships were the Antarctic Humpback Whales which congregated each summer near the Antarctic Peninsula.  The factory ships were joined by some older vessels, and exploitation was unrelenting.  About 70,000 Humpback Whales were killed between 1909 and 1913, and by World War I, these whales were almost extinct in the Southern Ocean (Garrett 1981).  The toll of Antarctic whales taken in the early 20th century was staggering:  more than 122,000 were killed between 1909 and 1927 (Reeves 1979).  Humpback Whales finally received protection in 1966 from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but pirate whalers as well as certain Caribbean nations continue to hunt them.
     Factory ships were developed in 1925 with rear slipways through which whales could be winched onto the ships.  Whales could be killed either in the open ocean or near ice floes and pulled onto the deck for flensing and rendering (Garrett 1981).  With this development, the fate of the vast populations of Blue and Fin Whales of the Antarctic was sealed.  First the Blue Whales were slaughtered.  They stayed close to the pack ice, convenient for both factory ships and moored vessels.  More than 15,000 a year were taken in the 1920s, with a high of almost 30,000 in 1930 (Allen 1942).  Soon these mammoth whales, the largest animals on Earth, declined.  By 1934, the average length of Blue Whales killed had dropped to 79 feet; 41 percent of the females caught were immature (Allen 1942).  These great whales do not reach sexual maturity until females attain a length of 78 feet.  The 1937 International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling reduced the limit to 70 feet for Blue Whales, thus failing to conserve breeding females (Allen 1942).  Between 1910 and 1966, a staggering 330,000 Blue Whales were killed in the Antarctic (Lean and Hinrichsen 1992). 
     After World War II, the IWC was established under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to "provide for the conservation, development, and optimum utilization of the whale resources" (Ehrlich 1981).  Member nations now include both whaling and non-whaling countries.  The Scientific Committee of the IWC recommends  restricting the number of whales killed when it determines that the species will decline as a result.  In the early years of the IWC, these recommendations were rarely followed by whaling nations, and so little knowledge of great whale population, biology and status had been uncovered that quotas were far too high to sustain these slow-reproducing species.  The destruction of the great whales is a true biological tragedy.  Even after almost 40 years of protection, their populations have increased only slightly.  Their life histories are certainly part of the explanation.  Blue Whale females, for example, are thought to become sexually mature only when they reach 10 years of age.  Gestation lasts 12 months, and the single 23 to 27-foot long calf stays with its mother for about two or three years.  Sperm Whales do not mature until they are past 20 years of age, and mature bulls, who are the major breeders, are at least 50 years old.  Killing of these whales, which did not end until 1983, wiped out the vast majority of big bull Sperm Whales. 
      Until recently, it was not known how long whales live.  New findings are astounding.  A Bowhead Whale recently killed by Eskimos was found to have two stone harpoon blades embedded in its blubber; as reported by National Geographic ("Geographica," March 1996).  This discovery fixed the whale's age at more than 100 years because the use of stone harpoons ended a century ago when metal tools were brought to Alaska.  The whale was only a few years old when it was wounded by the handmade pointed tool, and Stephen Loring, an Arctic specialist at the Smithsonian Institution, estimated that when killed, it was between 100 and 130 years old.  Further research by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography on three Bowhead Whales killed by Inupiat Eskimos in northern Alaska estimated their ages at death at between 135 and 172 years old.  The age of a fourth Bowhead was estimated at 211 years old, which would make the Bowhead Whale the longest-living of all animals, surpassing the oldest known land tortoises.  The ages were determined by studying changes in amino acids in the lenses of the whales' eyes.  Harpoon points made of ivory and stone, not used since the 19th century, have been found in other Bowhead Whales killed in recent years.  Moreover, several generations of hunters have spoken of seeing the same Bowhead Whales, which they recognized as individuals based on their markings.
     Whales knew few enemies in the sea before man, and they evolved no defenses that could have protected them from harpoons tearing through their flesh, nor could they increase their rate of reproduction to compensate for the extremely high kill.  Another factor hampering their recovery has been illegal whaling.  Blue Whales and other endangered species were illegally harpooned long after they received official protection, and this is still taking place.
     During its first 30 years, the IWC permitted the deaths of 1.5 million great whales (Bright 1991).  It pushed the very species that it had taken responsibility to conserve closer to extinction.  Blue Whales, the largest whales, measuring up to 100 feet, were totally eliminated, and smaller and smaller whales were caught.  The average length of the Blue Whales caught had declined to 73 feet by 1965 (Scheffer 1974).  At this point, when the species had been reduced to only 6 percent of its original numbers, the IWC finally accorded protection (Scheffer 1974).  Blue Whales number only about 12,000 worldwide.  All populations of this whale in the Southern, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are listed as Endangered by the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
     Decimation of 81-foot Fin Whales in the Antarctic followed until their populations collapsed early in the 1960s.  Fin Whales in the North Atlantic became overexploited in the 1970s.  Whalers then turned to the Sei Whales, fastest of the whales, a sleek species reaching a length of up to 58 feet (Heintzelman 1981).  When these whales became depleted, the Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), the smallest of the great whales at less than 33 feet long, became the major prey of whalers.

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