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Commercial Whaling And Other Threats

Cetaceans have been harvested on an individual basis by native peoples, including Inuit, in many parts of the world since before recorded time. Commercial whaling was underway in earnest by the twelfth century, when the Basque people of the French and Spanish coasts harvested whales harpooned from small boats, called shallops, in struggles lasting many hours. Such struggles were worth the risks, because a single whale yields enormous amounts of valuable commodities. The victorious whalers returned with huge quantities of meat and blubber, which was rendered down into valuable oil for fuel and lubricants. By the eighteenth century, commercial whaling was a burgeoning industry, notably for baleen, to be used in ladies' corsets.

Modern whaling methods are viewed by many outside the industry as grossly inhumane. Whales today are killed by a harpoon whose head has four claws and one or more grenades attached; when a whale is within range, the harpoon is fired into its body, where the head explodes, lacerating muscle and organs. The whale dives to escape, but is hauled to the surface with ropes and shot again. Death may not be swift, taking 15 minutes or more.

Commercial whaling inflicted a devastating blow on the world's baleen whale populations until 1986; most populations have yet to recover, and many populations and some species of whales are endangered. Public outcry resulted in reduced catch quotas during the 1970s, and finally in 1982 the International Whaling Commission set a moratorium on commercial whaling (to which all nations complied by 1989). Since then, however, Iceland, Norway, and Japan have demanded resumption of whaling; when the IWC refused, Norway announced plans to resume anyway, and Iceland left the IWC. Commercial whaling continues, although at a much reduced scale compared to former times.

Further dangers to cetacean populations include marine pollution and loss of food resources due to human activity. Drift nets hanging invisible in the water cause the death of cetaceans along with seals, seabirds, and fish; nets that get torn free during storms may drift at sea for many years. Thus, although the use of drift nets was halted by 1992, their effects persist. Meanwhile, purseseine fishing methods for tuna have killed an estimated seven million dolphins since 1959.

Susan Andrew

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to ChimaeraCetaceans - Mysticeti: Baleen Whales, Odontoceti: Toothed Whales, Anatomy And Physiology, Sensory Perception, Social Behavior