Whaling: End of an Era

September 27, 1985

Report Outline
Commercial Phase-Out
Whaling's Long History
Chances for Survival
Special Focus

Commercial Phase-Out

1988 Projected End of Worldwide Operations

Herman Melville shipped out on the whaling vessel Acushnet early in 1841 from New Bedford, Mass., bound for Cape Horn and the South Pacific. The 22-year-old was between jobs during a period of hard times. But it was a boom time for the New England whaling industry. More than 700 American ships prowled the seas in search of whales during the 1840s. New Bedford was the busiest whaling port in the world. Crewing on a whaler was difficult and dangerous, and Melville left his ship in mid-voyage after 18 months. But his adventures were the fodder for Moby Dick, which many believe is the quintessential American novel.

Commercial whaling changed radically just a few years after the 1851 publication of Moby Dick. By the late 1860s the explosive harpoon had replaced the hand-thrown weapon used in Melville's day, and steam-powered catcher boats allowed whalers to hunt faster-swimming whales and to range farther in search of them. By the end of the 1930s whaling fleets from around the world had drastically depleted the numbers of eight of the nine largest species of whales, a group of mammals known as the great whales.

World War II interrupted nearly all commercial whaling, but in the late 1940s a handful of nations resumed operations. At the same time several nations with whaling industries took steps to ensure a continuous supply of whales, an effort that until recently was characterized more by political dissension than success. However, all but a handful of countries—notably the Soviet Union and Japan—have agreed to end commercial whaling in 1986, and those two countries have indicated they will end their operations in 1988.

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