When the 1920s rolled around, whaling wasn’t anything new. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published 70 years prior, had thoroughly conveyed the storied history of man’s insatiable urge to conquer both literal and figurative iterations of the great ocean beasts. Yet the 1920s still serve as a major point of delineation because it gave birth to whaling as we know it now. The decade saw a string of major nautical innovations that had major and immediate impacts on the whaling industry. What had been a practice for scraggly men tossing harpoons transformed overnight into to a systemic killing industry that grew more and more efficient each passing decade.
This bit of information is among the findings of a report titled Emptying the Oceans: A Summary of Industrial Whaling Catches in the 20th Century. As the title suggests, the paper constructs a vivid account of the series of events that led to our current, “Uh oh, we’ve nearly killed off all of the whales” situation. Matthew DeLuca of NBC News has the scoop:
“The study attempts to tally the number of whales that were killed as whaling transformed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from an enterprise carried out by men with rowboats to an industrialized effort capable of processing the sea mammals at a previously unimagined pace…
The study … relied on whale-catch databases maintained by the International Whaling Commission, as well as corrected counts for Soviet kills that went misreported for years. In total, the researchers estimate that about 2.9 million whales were killed for commercial purposes between 1900 and 1999.”
One of the authors of the study called that 2.9 million figure “likely an underestimate,” which is nothing short of astounding. Whaling peaked in the 1950s when an estimated 469,000 animals were killed in the Southern Hemisphere alone. Attrition rates tapered off once an international moratorium on commercial whaling was put into place in 1986, but that hasn’t stopped certain groups from poaching in the shadows.
As DeLuca notes, the question at the heart of this new report is, “Can the remaining whales ever recover?” Populations remain low — they’re whales after all, not rabbits — and other threats, such as changes in climate, unstable food supplies, and noise from military sonar, could stunt efforts to restore the population. Only time will tell what the future entails for some of Earth’s most majestic creatures.
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