for Whales and seals was the reason for the initial exploration of Antarctica.
Reports of abundant stocks drew the adventurous from the early 19th century
onwards. Before long there were major crashes in the populations of some
wildlife. The Antarctic fur seal for example was almost totally wiped out
at many locations by 1830 leading to a decline in the sealing industry although
it continued on a smaller scale well into the 20th century.
On Antarctica itself (though crucially not the seas surrounding it,
no Antarctic bird
or mammal can be killed or captured without a permit - granted only
for scientific reasons under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty.
story of Antarctic whaling is one of greed and excess. Once the most
profitable species had been hunted to a point of great scarcity, the next
species was hunted until it too was very rare, then the next and so on.
The Antarctic whale fishery has been described as being more like mining
rather than a sustainable fishery.
The International Whaling
Commission (IWC) was set up to attempt to regulate the industry to a position
of sustainability (where catches are balanced by production) but was widely
regarded at failing in this. The only thing that eventually did drive many
companies out of the whaling business was a fall in profits due to a lack
of whales when there weren't many left to kill any more.
Slowly however the IWC
did have some impact. In the 1960s blue and humpback whales were fully protected,
protection that was then extended to fin and sei whales in the 1970s. In
1986 the IWC suspended all commercial whaling.
Commercial whaling has all but stopped
worldwide but some nations particularly Japan continue to take whales under
the guise of a 'scientific take' - taking whales for scientific
The "Scientific Reasons" for such whaling is
to find out if the time has arrived to recommence commercial whaling
again, not what you might imagine the purpose of scientific research to
These scientifically caught whales
end up in restaurants and one whale can have a $1,000,000 market value
at the restaurant table.
catches by year from the 1909-1910 Antarctic whaling season to 2000-2001
by species. Humpback Whales were targeted initially until the
technology was developed to target faster swimming Blue Whales, as the
Blues declined, the next biggest species, Fin Whales were targeted, then
as they declined, Sei whales and eventually as all species became
scarce, even the much smaller Minke was taken. Note the large dip that
corresponds to the Second World War.
The Antarctic whaling season is in the austral (southern hemisphere)
summer from November to March, and spans part of two calendar years, so
seasons are referred to as 39/40 meaning from November 1939 to March
1940 for instance.
the 1700's and 1800's, southern fur seals were almost completely wiped out
by commercial ventures from Europe and North America. The pelts were very
popular for their dense short fibred fur that and were made into ladies
coats. Captain James Cook visited the island of South Georgia in 1775 and
reported that there a great many seals present. Within 25 years of being
discovered, the summer catch had climbed to 112,000 animals. By 1822, the
southern fur seal was virtually extinct on South Georgia.
Somewhat ironically it was the quest for new populations of fur seals
that led to much of the early exploration of Antarctica and the Southern
Ocean. One of the very first sightings of the Antarctic continent was
made by an American sealer, Nathaniel Palmer on Nov 16th 1820. The very
first overwintering in Antarctica in 1821 was by 10 crew and an officer
from the British sealing ship Lord Melville on King George Island just
north of the Antarctic Peninsula (though it wasn't planned and they
By the beginning of the 1900's the southern fur seal
was a rare animal, a lone male was sighted on South Georgia in 1916 and
duly killed. In 1931 a scientific expedition discovered a small breeding
colony of a few hundred on Bird Island a few miles from South Georgia. The
decline of the fur seal coincided with the rise of whaling. Baleen whales
and fur seals both feed on the same food - krill. As the whales were slaughtered
in ever increasing numbers so there was ever more krill available for the
fur seals to feed on. By the end of the 1950's the world population of fur
seals stood at about 5,000, by 1976 on South Georgia alone it had reached
In 1993 the estimated population was around 1.5 million
with more and more seals being found further away from South Georgia and
beginning to breed further afield too. The population today is estimated
to be around 4 million though it is difficult to gauge very accurately.
(CCAS) was initiated in response to this in order to avoid earlier over-exploitation
and the disastrous effects on seal stocks. The CCAS established
rules for commercial sealing with permissible catch limits for some species
such as crabeater, leopard and Weddell seals. A zoning system was also drawn
up with closed hunting seasons. Total protection was given for the very
rare Ross seal, also for southern elephant seals and certain species of
No commercial sealing has been carried out in Antarctica since the 1950's.Seals were killed in order to provide food for dog teams that were stationed
in Antarctica up to the point where the dog teams were finally removed due
to worries that the disease of canine distemper might spread to seals in