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From the earliest days of exploration, Antarctica was plundered
for it's natural resources.
Along with seals, the chief resource was whales.
Many different whale species migrate south during the austral summer to take advantage of the food resources of vast swarms of krill that feed on the huge phytoplankton blooms. These blooms result from upwellings of nutrients around Antarctica along with up to 24hours of daylight for much of the region in midsummer.
Ships would be sent south to harvest the whales with no regard to the long term protection of the fishery, the plunder of Antarctic whales was more akin to mining than to a sustainable fishery. Take what is there, and when it is gone there will be no more.
The result was the decimation of virtually all of the world's whale species to the extent that today, decades after large scale commercial whaling stopped, most whale stocks are still a small fraction of their pre-whaling levels.
Today around 300 whales are still taken from the Antarctic waters by the Japanese for 'research' they also sell the flesh from these "scientifically gathered" whales to fund their marine research programmes (whale meat is highly prized in Japanese eateries). More recently some whaling nations have been pressing for a lifting of the ban on commercial whaling.
Antarctic whaling began on a large scale in 1904 with the building of a whale processing station at Grytviken, South Georgia. A number of shore-based stations were in operation under some kind of regulation on the catches very shortly after this. Processing of carcasses was very inefficient in the early days as a whale was stripped of its blubber alongside the factory ship and the remains were left to float away. There are places around Antarctica and sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia where there are beaches that are covered with whale bones. In some places the beaches are made of almost nothing else but whale bones.
In 1925, the first "factory ships" were built so that whaling could take place entirely at sea. This meant that the whalers were not operating within the territory of any one country and so consequently there were no regulations on catch size or species taken nor on the age or sex (nursing mothers with calves for example) of the catch.
The best catch for whalers were initially Humpback whales as they swam slowly and often close to the land so were easy to reach. As whalers became able to operate away from port with faster whaling boats, their attentions turned to the Blue Whale. Blues were always the preferred species even when numbers were declining, but as they became scarcer attention was turned to firstly Fin and then Sei whales, each progressively less profitable than the predecessor.
The taking of Fin and Sei whales was banned by international agreement in the late 1970's when those nations still involved in whaling turned to the much smaller Minkes.
A plaque from outside Tonsberg House (now dismantled and removed) on Signy Island in the South Orkneys group. This British Antarctic Survey base was built on the site of a Norwegian whaling station founded in 1921. The plaque is a whale vertebra (backbone) found on a beach near the base, from a whale killed by the whalers, painted by one of the base personnel. It hangs on a stave from a wooden barrel that would have been used to hold melted down whale blubber.
It details the whaling catches by the whaling fleet in the period 1911-1930 in the South Orkney and South Shetland islands.
Antarctic Whale Catches (close - up of above)
South Orkneys and South Shetlands 1911 - 1930
Right 78 Blue 61336 Fin 48023 Sei 1796 Humpback 6742 Sperm 184
Total whale catch
in 19 years
About half a mile from the site of the whaling station on Signy is a shallow beach that is sea covered at high tide and exposed at low tide.
The carcasses once "flensed" stripped of all useful material would be pushed into the sea. Many would wash up onto this beach where they remain many decades later. There are skeletal parts of many different whales here.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up in 1946 to "regulate the orderly development of the whaling industry". Unfortunately it was widely perceived as failing in this task. From the 1970's onwards conservation groups began an intense international struggle aimed at saving whaling stocks from further depletion. The IWC had largely operated to ensure that whaling nations could share the whale stocks with a degree of fairness, rather than to conserve stocks for the future. It worked in a way that was more like the mining of a resource that would soon run out rather than managing a sustainable fishery.
"Scientific whaling" for research purposes is a loophole to internationally agreed moratoria on whaling and remains a controversial issue.
Proposals put forward by Japan to take Sperm and Minke whales were criticized by the IWC because of the infeasibility of the proposed research methods. Many people consider that "scientific whaling" is simply a continuation of commercial whaling under a different name.
Cool Antarctica emailed the Japanese Whaling Association (JWA) to invite them to submit scientific data or a link to scientific data to this web site. At present no reply has been received.
Transcript of email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org on Sun 27/01/02 19:38 GMT re-sent on Sat 16/02/02 00:06 GMT. If a reply is received, it will be published here.
I have a web site www.coolantarctica.com that is a general Antarctica site. I am in the process of adding a "whales and whaling" section. I have no particular axe to grind or alternative agenda, I wish to present information to an audience that consists of many schools and teachers. The section will contain basic facts and pictures about whales, historical information and present day information.
Would it be possible to present some of the scientific information on my site that has been found by the Japanese whaling programme? The whaling pages are not yet in place, perhaps you would want to see them first, but they will be presented in the same manner as the pages on travel in Antarctica where I have contributions and links about pro and anti-tourism.
My own position is as a concerned naturalist eager to promote Antarctica, I do not suffer from the mawkish anthropomorphism of some campaigners. If you were able to contribute anything, I would happy to submit the page that I use it in for your approval or otherwise before publishing it on my site.
Oh dear - silly me!
Having been a research scientist in the past, I had this idea that "scientific whaling" was about learning about whales for the purpose of advancing research and knowledge.
How wrong could I be!
It turns out that "scientific whaling" has really always been about monitoring the whale population to gain information about when the whaling nations can begin commercial whaling again.
So the information that "scientific whaling" was looking for was when could they recommence commercial whaling - according to their own decisions of course - and look what a disaster that was first time around!
It has also has the side-effect of keeping alive whaling skills amongst the fishermen and keeping the idea of whaling alive amongst the Japanese public - so it could begin again one day.
This cynical use of the concept of "scientific whaling" simply reinforces the view of whalers as unfeelingly exploiting the world's whale population that should be protected forever and not "fished"
Despite this however, it seems that the whalers may be up against the strongest of all oppositions - market forces. Young Japanese in particular simply don't like the idea of eating whale meat and blubber however the whales have been killed or "culled" according to the spin of the whalers. So maybe whaling will end with the loss of a market for the whales.
Abandoned whale catcher boats at Grytviken - South Georgia. Photo courtesy NOAA
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