Marine Science Chapters


Modern Whaling

Display, showing Sven Foyn and his new harpoon gun, in a whaling museum in Bergen, Norway
Display, showing Sven Foyn and his new harpoon gun, in a whaling museum in Bergen, Norway. (GA image)

Svend Foyn’s bomb-tipped harpoon fired from a gun forever changed whaling. Foyn was a Norwegian whaling captain and mounted his gun on the bow of a steam-powered ‘catcher boat.’ He could travel very fast and his harpoons were more successful than the hand held type. This invention opened whaling to the larger and faster whales (blue, Bryde’s, fin, humpback, and sei) that previous whalers could never catch.

Catcher Boat in Norway
Catcher boat, Southern Actor, in Norway. (GA image)

Bow of Catcher Boat with Harpoon Gun
Bow of the catcher boat, Southern Actor, with harpoon gun. (GA image)

Antarctica became the next center for the modern whalers in the 1900s. With the new type of boat and harpoon the modern whalers killed more whales in 40 years than had been killed in the previous 400 years. But, by the late 1960s the numbers of whales had so drastically declined that many nations quit whaling.

Factory ship from Norway
Factory ship picture on hotel wall in Sandefjord Norway 2001. (GA image)

Russia and Japan continued using fleets of catcher boats operating out of large factory ships. The factory ships might have a dozen or so catcher boats, airplanes and helicopters, and the ability to do all the processing of the whale on the factory ship. When a catcher boat killed a whale it was pumped up with air and an identification a buoy attached. Buoy boats would then round up all the dead whales while the catcher boats went off to a new kill. This efficiency further decreased the populations of the large whales.

Since 1946 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has worked to regulate the whaling industry of all nations. Quotas were set for each country, sometimes unrealistically high so that the numbers of many of the whale species continued to decline. Since the 1970s most nations have ceased whaling. The United States closed its last whaling station in 1971, the Del Monte Whaling Station, at Richmond, California (near San Francisco). These last whales were primarily ground up for dog food.

Smoked Whale Meat, NorwaySmoked Whale Meat, Norway
Two types of smoked whale meat for sale in Bergen, Norway. This was said to be Minke Whale. (GA images)

Whale Meat, NorwayWhale Meat, Norway
Whale meat for sale in Bergen, Norway. This was said to be fresh Minke Whale. (GA images)

Some countries continue to take whales. Japan and Norway are the main whaling nations of today. In both Norway and Japan whale meat is available for human consumption. These countries are taking a number of Minke whales – a species previously not whaled because it was too small and fast. Minkes are currently very abundant and the whaling nations argue that their large numbers show that they can be harvested.

Controversy continues all over the world. Whaling nations may be boycotted by nonwhaling nations. Whaling boats may encounter protestors who place themselves between the harpoon guns and the whales, or sabotage the whale boats. In the United States a Native American tribe, the Makah, asserted its right to whale by killing a gray whale in 1999 amongst great protests and media coverage although it had obtained the appropriate permits.

The story of whaling has come full circle and repeated itself many times in history – as the numbers of whales declined the whaling industry changed to new locations, new species and new techniques again and again. It is only recently that many nations have decided to protect whales in their waters. Many nations are finding that the industry of whale watching is many times more profitable than the killing of whales and much less damaging to the natural resource of the industry – the whales.

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(Revised 6 August 2007)
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