Every year, around 13 million people go whale watching around the world, marveling at the sight of the largest animals to ever inhabit the Earth. It’s a dramatic turnaround from a century ago, when few people saw a live whale. The creatures are still recovering from a massive industrial-scale hunt that nearly wiped out several species in the 20th century.
The history of whaling shows how humans have wreaked reckless havoc on the ocean, but also how they can change course. In my new book, “Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling”, I describe how the Soviet Union played a pivotal role in both this deadly industry and in the scientific research that helps us understand whale recovery. .
From wood to steel and from bad to worse
At the turn of the 20th century, it looked like whales might get a reprieve from years of hunting. The era of whaling from sailboats, described in such memorable detail by Herman Melville in “Moby-Dick”, had nearly wiped out slow-moving, fat species like right and bowhead whales, and had also caused significant damage to sperm whales.
In the 1800s, American whalers sailed unrestrained and unimpeded to every corner of the world’s oceans, including the waters around Russia’s Siberian Empire. There, Tsarist officials watched in helpless rage as the Americans slaughtered whales that many indigenous peoples in the region relied on.
In the 1870s petroleum began to replace whale oil as a fuel. With few catchable whales left, the industry seemed to be coming to an end. But whalers have found new markets. Through hydrogenation – a chemical process that can be used to turn liquid oils into solid or semi-solid fats – manufacturers have been able to turn smelly whale products into odorless margarine for human consumption.
Around the same time, the Norwegians invented the explosive harpoon, which killed whales more effectively than hand-thrown versions, and the stern hold, which allowed whale carcasses to be processed aboard ships. Along with diesel engines and steel hulls, these technologies have allowed whalers to target previously intact species in once inaccessible places, such as Antarctica.
Late to the party, late to leave
As mechanized whaling gained vigor in the 1920s and 1930s, Norwegian, British, and Japanese whalers cut populations of blue, common, and humpback whales on a scale hard to believe today. In what scientists once believed to be the peak harvest year, 1937, more than 63,000 great whales were killed and processed.
World War II briefly suspended this slaughter, which many governments were beginning to realize was threatening the survival of some species of whales. In 1946, whalers, statesmen and scientists established the International Whaling Commission in hopes of preventing a return to disastrous pre-war whaling levels.
That same year, the USSR joined the CBI and took control of a former Nazi whaler, which it renamed the Slava, or Glory. No one suspected the central role the country would play in the most disastrous two decades in the long history of whales on Earth.
The madness of modern whaling
Despite the CBI’s best intentions, post-war catches increased rapidly. By the mid-1950s, even longtime whalers had to admit that big whales were becoming too rare for their industries to be profitable. All nations except Japan have begun to think about ending whaling.
So it came as a shock when the Soviet Union announced in 1956 that it planned to build seven new “floating factories” – gigantic industrial processing ships, accompanied by fleets of smaller “sensor” boats that would cruise the oceans at the search for whales.
Soviet whale scientists were as amazed as observers elsewhere. These biologists and oceanographers had been watching the decline from ships and from their laboratories at the Department of Fisheries and the Academy of Sciences since the 1930s.
Instead of supporting fleet expansion, they argued forcefully that whales were on the brink of extinction and that whaling should drastically decline, not expand. This is how the Soviet planned economy was supposed to work: science, not profit, would help guide economic decisions, letting planners know how much could be extracted from the natural world and when to stop.
But Soviet officials were determined to finally catch whales on a large scale, as Western nations had been doing for so long. The Ministry of Fisheries ignored the recommendations of its scientists and built five of the seven floating factories planned over the next decade.
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union was the largest whaling nation in the world. Whalers such as the legendary captain Aleksei Solyanik were celebrated as superstars, comparable to astronauts like Yuri Gagarin.
But the scientists were right: many species of whales had almost disappeared. To produce big catches, Solyanik and other captains decided to ignore international quotas and secretly targeted the most endangered whale species, including blue, humpback and fin whales from Antarctica and the North Pacific.
In 1961, for example, Soviet fleets killed 9,619 rare humpback whales south of New Zealand, while reporting only 302 to the IWC. This was only part of their global catch, which the Soviet Union continued to underreport for years. Driven by Moscow’s demands for ever-increasing production, the whalers worked at breakneck speed, wasting much of the blubber and meat taken from dead whales. It is doubtful that the industry was ever profitable.
Thanks to Soviet scientists who kept some records of these illegal catches and subsequent work by other researchers, it now seems likely that the Soviet Union killed around 550,000 whales after World War II while only reporting 360. 000. We now know that the world’s whale harvest peaked in 1964, not 1937, with a total of 91,783 whales killed, about 40% of them by Soviet whalers.
Not quite extinct
By the 1970s, large whale populations had become insignificant. Many observers were convinced that extinction was inevitable. But momentum for whale conservation was growing.
The United States listed blue, fin, sei, sperm and humpback whales under the law that preceded the Endangered Species Act in 1970, and then continued to protect them under that law, enacted in 1973. Whales also received protection in US waters under the Marine Mammal Act of 1972. Protection law.
Thanks to pressure from environmentalists and its own citizens, the Soviet Union ended its whaling industry in 1987. The country agreed to a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling, which remains in effect today with only three recalcitrants: Norway, Iceland and Japan.
The number of whales almost immediately began to rebound. Humpback whales have been particularly successful, but populations of bowhead, fin and sperm whales have also grown in the near absence of commercial whaling. However, some species, including North Atlantic right whales, remain endangered or critically endangered.
In one of the greatest conservation successes, gray whales in the Eastern Pacific are now estimated to have returned to pre-exploitation abundance and may in fact be reaching the limits of what their core habitats are. feeding in the Bering Sea can withstand. And in 2018 and 2019, German scientists and researchers at the BBC observed and filmed fin whales feeding around the Antarctic Peninsula in vast pods that were reminiscent of what the ocean must have looked like before the 20th century.
Thanks to Russian scientists who opposed the disastrous expansion of whaling in their country and preserved its records, we know how many whales were lost in the 20th century. This information can also help scientists, governments and conservationists judge the whales’ remarkable but far from complete recovery.