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Whaling is the act of hunting whales. Whaling has been carried out on a small scale since pre-historic times. The oldest known method of catching whales is to simply drive them ashore by placing a number of small boats between the whale and the open sea and attempting to frighten them with noise, activity, and perhaps small, non-lethal weapons such as arrows. Typically, this was used for small species, such as Pilot Whales, Belugas and Narwhals.

The next step was to employ a drouge: a floating object such as a wooden drum or an inflated sealskin which was tied to an arrow or a harpoon, in the hope that, after a time, the whale would tire enough to be approached and killed. Several cultures around the world practiced whaling with drouges, including the Inuit, Native Americans, and the Basque people of the Bay of Biscay.

By medieval times, the Basque fishery had become a significant industry, with whale meat and blubber exported to many parts of Europe. The operation was strictly coastal: watchmen manned lookout towers and when whales were sighted, rang a bell to alert the boat crews. When a whale was killed, it was towed ashore for cutting up and processing.

The type of whale sought was at that time abundant in the North Atlantic and particularly in the Bay of Biscay: the right whale— named because it was the "right" whale to hunt. It was, at least by comparison with other whales, easy to kill, non-aggressive, rich in both baleen and oil, and above all, the carcass often floated. (The particular right whale hunted was the one now known as the Atlantic Northern Right Whale.)

Eventually, during or before the 16th century, Basque whalemen tired of the low success rate of the drouge method (many a harpooned whale would simply swim off into the distance and never be seen again) and adopted the fast-fish method: using the entire whaleboat as a drouge. The technique evolved a great deal over the centuries and varied in detail from one whaling nation to another, but essentially involved having a very long line in the boat which could be paid out as the whale sounded, and hauled back in as it neared the surface. After a sufficient number of attempts to escape, the exhausted whale could be killed. This was considerably more dangerous but resulted in a higher proportion of successful attempts—something that was becoming a necessity at the time, as although the Basque fishery was tiny by comparison with those of later years, right whales were becoming rare near the coasts of Europe. As early as 1372, Basque ships were crossing almost to the other side of the North Atlantic to whale on the Newfoundland Banks. By the late 16th century, right whales were almost exterminated in the eastern North Atlantic and Basque, Norwegian and Icelandic whalers were traveling as far afield as the Gulf of St Lawrence and to the edges of the Greenland ice-pack.

With the Atlantic Northern Right Whale nearing commercial extinction, in the early 17th century news came from fur traders sailing to Archangel of vast numbers of another type of right whale far to the north. Originally known as the Greenland Right Whale, it is better known now by the name given to it by American whalers in later years, the Bowhead Whale. The initial rush to the "Northern Goldfield" started with an Englsh company in 1611 and centered on the waters near Spitzbergen. A five-way international struggle soon developed over whaling rights, there were armed clashes between whaling crews and naval vessels were sent to provide extra firepower. In 1618, the English fleet was so embroiled in the struggle against other whalers that it returned from Spitzbergen without having caught a single whale.

A compromise peace was negotiated shortly aftwards, and for the next 30 years whalers of many nations conducted the "Bay Fishery". Bowhead Whales were present in such numbers that there was no need to leave the coastal waters in search of them. Whalers sailed to Spitzbergen, anchored, and set up temporary processing station on the shore for the summer season. Fleets of three or four small, open boats called shallops would work together to catch and kill a whale, then tow it ashore for flensing (cutting the blubber into long strips) ready to be boiled down into oil, which was stored in wooden casks.

Semi-permananent shore stations were established and for the 30-odd years that the boom lasted the Dutch whaling settlement of Smeerenburg north-west of Spitzbergen hosted hundreds of whaling ships each year. By 1645, the coastal whales had been exterminated and Smeerenburg was deserted. The hunt for Bowhead Whales continued on the open seas.

Gradually, whaling ships became more self-sufficient. Flensing took place on any nearby shore, then on ice-floes (it became the custom to moor the ship to a large ice-floe and drift south with it for the season) and eventually on the open seas with the carcass tied to the side of the ship. Different nations adopted different methods: most packed the blubber into casks to be boiled down ashore, the Basques (and a hundred years later the Americans) prefered to risk the perils of fire on a wooden boat boiled down their oil while at sea.

As Bowhead Whales became scarce in the North Atlantic, operations shifted to ever more difficult areas. Davis Strait (between Newfoundland and Greenland) was fished out, and whalers penetrated into Baffin Bay, then still further north-east past the Melville Bay ice-pack into what was known as the North Water. Ships were lost in the ice every year, many ships in bad years: in 1830, of the 91 British ships to enter Davis Straits, 19 were lost. The few remaining Atlantic Bowhead Whales became prohibitively expensive to hunt. By the early 20th century, there were only a handful of ships left whaling in the North Atlantic, and although whalebone could be sold for £3500 a ton, there was little to be had. In 1910, for example, the 10 Scottish whalers sailed for the Arctic but between then returned with 18 Pilot Wales, 389 Belugas, 1697 Walruses, 4549 seals, 242 Polar Bears, and no Bowhead Whales at all. When the First World War broke out, the fishery was abandoned completely.

In previous times, the commercial exploitation of whales was a major business, supporting large fleets engaged in their pursuit. In the heyday of whaling during the 19th and early 20th centuries, large species such as the Humpback Whale and Blue Whale were the primary targets. Whaling ships often spent years at sea with little or no contact with the rest of humanity. Whales were primarily hunted for the oil contained in their bodies. Some species, once abundant, were killed in numbers reaching tens of thousands annually, and approached extinction. By the mid-20th century, with the depletion of the stocks, the declining market for whale oil, and general public disapprobation of the hunting of rare species, commercial whaling decreased to the point where the industry nearly vanished.

Whaling is regulated by the International Whaling Commission, set up in 1946 by the United Nations International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. On July 23, 1982 the International Whaling Commission decided to end commercial whaling by 1985-86. Although whale oil has little commercial value today, whale meat has come to be considered a delicacy, particularly in Japan.

Norway is the only country to have registered an objection to the International Whaling Commission moratorium, and is thereby not bound by said moratorium.

Japan also carries out commercial whaling operations, which are thinly disguised as "science". The "research" is conducted under the auspices of the Institute of Cetacean Research, a privately owned organisation planned years in advance and officially founded in 1987 by a whaling company, equipped by that company with a factory ship and other associated equipment, crewed by former company employees, and selling roughly US$60 million dollars worth of whale products each year. Although whaling "ended" in May 1987, the same whaling fleet, with the same crews, was back in the Southern Ocean harvesting whales by December of that year, and carrying the processed whale products back to Japan for sale.

Neither the International Whaling Commission nor its scientific committee have requested this "research", and both have repeatedly criticised it, and called for it to cease. Iceland recently began its own programn of "scientific" whaling.

The primary species hunted today is the Minke Whale, a small, sharp-toothed species which exists in very large numbers. Some researchers have suggested that this species is endangering fish populations. This has lead for calls that the International Whaling Commission revise its regulations to give greater emphasis to species-by-species analysis rather than treating all whales as a monolithic group.

Several countries, most notably the United States, Russia, and Greenland, allow aboriginal groups to hunt whales if they have traditionally done so. Very few whales are killed in this manner, and they are usually, but not always, common species.

The subject of whaling is central to the novel Moby Dick by the USA novelist Herman Melville.

Table of contents
1 Arguments for whaling
2 Arguments against whaling
3 External links

Arguments for whaling

Arguments against whaling

External links