This summer I've been working with a research team that studies humpback whale songs. It pains me to say that despite that — despite now spending the better part of my waking hours staring at spectrograms of their songs on a computer — I've never actually seen a humpback whale . But I do feel like I've developed some kind of relationship with them all the same — and hey, if people are meeting their future spouses online, who's to judge virtual bonding with nature?
Anyhow. I was talking to my supervisor about the Australian and South Pacific populations that our lab is studying, and it turns out they've had quite a dramatic ecological history in the past hundred years, one full of political intrigue and eco-villainy and with (for now) a more or less happy ending. Most of what I'll be talking about comes from a longer article on the topic that I found after hearing about it from my supervisor.
Basically, from the 40s to the 80s, the Soviet Union hunted the better part of the world's whale populations to the brink of extinction, using an elaborate scheme to lie to the international community (namely the International Whaling Commission) about catch numbers.
It is estimated that all in all, the Soviets underreported their whaling catches by 18 times.
But the vastness of the crime is not he strangest part of all this. The strangest part is that the Soviet Union actually had very little demand for whale oil, and even less for the various products available to be made from the rest of the whale (meat, etc). In fact, it was common practice to heave the entire carcass, once stripped of the outer layer of blubber, back into the sea to rot. Whereas the Japanese whaling Industry used around 90% of the whales caught, the Soviets used around 30%. Why, then, did they so aggressively go after the whales, if the Soviet Market didn't have the demand for them?
Quotas. The Soviet government had in its 5-year Economic Plans certain targets for the whaling industry that were some multiple higher than the numbers allowed for by the . So whalers were rewarded by the government for lying about their catch. As one former scientist aboard the Soviet whaling vessels put it, “the point was to catch up and get their portion of whale resources before they were all gone. It wasn’t intended to be a long industry.” So it seems like the imminence of ecological catastrophe, far from slowing the Soviets down, made them even more frantic. I should be clear that the Soviets weren't the only ones contributing to this catasrophe, but the relentless pace of their hunting pushed a lot of populations over the edge. In a matter of just a few seasons in the late 1950s, Soviet fleets of factory whaling ships decimated the entire humpback population of Western Australia, pulling 13,000 whales in the 1959-60 season alone and finding, on returning in 1961, that there were simply no humpbacks left there.
And once the South Pacific populations had been decimated, the Soviets moved further north, crippling the blue whale population of the North Pacific, which is endangered to this day. There were some dissenting voices within the Soviet Union:
...one of [the scientists] was called in front of Ishkov, he warned the minister that if the whaling practices didn’t change, their grandchildren would live in a world with no whales at all. “Your grandchildren?” Ishkov scoffed. “Your grandchildren aren’t the ones who can remove me from my job.”
I'm not exactly sure what the moral of all this is (besides, like, don't be evil), but I think it's a fascinating cautionary tale about political resource greed. The good news is that a lot of these populations have come back. In 1982, the IWC placed a complete ban on commercial whaling, albeit out of necessity: there were simply no more whales left. The Antarctic humpback population, one of the most devastated, now numbers at around 42,000.