How Whales Work

Whalers and Conservation
The deck of an early 20th-century whaling vessel. Whaling was once big business in the United States, Russia and many other countries throughout the world.
The deck of an early 20th-century whaling vessel. Whaling was once big business in the United States, Russia and many other countries throughout the world.
Photo courtesy NOAA

In the past, the main contact that humans had with whales was in hunting them. In some cultures, whale meat was a major food source dating back to prehistoric times. Whales were highly prized game because, like the woolly mammoth or bison, a single kill yielded an incredible amount of meat. But by the 1700s, when worldwide whaling really took off, the focus had shifted from the meat to a rich oil derived from whale blubber. Since it was the primary lamp fuel in many parts of the world, whale oil was big business throughout the 1700s and into the 1800s.

In this era, whale baleen was also highly prized. The keratin material, commonly referred to as whalebone, combines great strength and flexibility. These qualities made it an ideal choice for a variety of products, including ladies' corsets, riding crops and umbrellas. Whale teeth, engraved with inscriptions and decorations, were also very popular, particularly among the upper class.

The surge of whaling in this time had a profound impact on many whale species. Since whales only reproduce once every year, or, in many species, once every few years, they are devastated by excessive hunting. A female whale might live 50 years or more, giving birth to dozens of calves in that time, so the loss of even one female whale has a far-reaching effect on the entire population. Additionally, reduced whale numbers upset the sea's ecological balance, leading to an overabundance of krill in many areas, which can lead to population booms in other species that feed on the creatures.

With the invention of the harpoon gun and the increased speed and mobility of steam-powered boats, whalers could take aim at crafty species that had eluded them before. This, along with the rising popularity of whale-oil cosmetics, led to an unprecedented period of whaling in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the 1940s, it was clear that some whale species were nearing extinction. To secure the future of the industry, the major whaling nations bound together in 1946 and signed the International Whaling Convention. As part of this agreement, the nations established the International Whaling Commission, an independent organization charged with researching whale populations and regulating whaling practice.

Over the years, the commission instituted even stricter regulations on whaling practice, in light of new evidence that whale populations were still dwindling. In 1986, the commission instituted a worldwide moratorium on whaling, as it had become clear that any widespread hunting could lead to species extinction. Today, the commission only allows for small-scale hunting by certain aboriginal cultures and hunting for scientific purposes. Some nations, most notably Japan and Norway, continue to allow commercial whaling, claiming that they are only controlling regional whale populations.

Right whales, so named because they were the "right whale to hunt," are among the most endangered whales today. Researchers estimate there are only a few hundred left in the world.
Photo courtesy NOAA/NMFS

Under these regulations, many whale species have bounced back from the brink of extinction, but others, such as the right whale, are still in serious danger. According to whale-conservation organizations, the survival of these species depends on even stricter whaling regulations and more vigilant campaigns against illegal whaling operations. If these conservation efforts succeed, endangered whale species have a good shot at replenishing their numbers and continuing their mastery of the oceans for another 50 million years.

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