Whaling is the killing of whales for subsistence and/or economic value. It has been an important activity in multiple regions around the world throughout human history. Researchers have unearthed early depictions of whaling at a site in Korea that may date back as far as 6000 BCE.
Whaling, as an economic industry, began around the 11th Century. The Basques, living in the western Pyrenees regions in France and Spain, started hunting and trading the products obtained from the northern right whale. By 1530, Basque whalers were killing whales off the coast of eastern Canada. The Basque were followed in commercial whaling first by the Dutch and the British, and later by the Americans, Norwegians, and other nations. Humpback, sperm, and other large whales became the major targets of commercial whaling.
Whalers rendered the blubber (fat) of a whale into oil. The oil could serve in the manufacture of soap, leather and cosmetics. It was also used in candles as wax, and in oil lamps as fuel for lighting. Oil also became increasingly important during the Industrial Revolution as a lubricant.
Baleen whales also provided whale bone (elastic plates) which was used for stiffening corsets worn chiefly by women for shape and support.
Later, as meat preservation technology improved, whale meat as food also increased the value of a whale. However, the development of alternatives to whale oil for lighting and the collapse in whale populations slowed commercial whaling for a time.
In the late 19th century, the development of steam ships and the explosive harpoon, coupled with the depletion of whales in the rest of the world, led to heavy hunting in the waters of the Antarctic. World War I provided a huge market for explosives using glycerine from whale oil provided by British and Norwegian whaling in the Antarctic. Heavy hunting eventually depleted even these populations, and today many populations are coming close to extinction.
Today, whales are mainly killed for food in both commercial whaling operations and by indigenous peoples hunting for nutritional and cultural subsistence. Since 1946, whaling has been for the most part regulated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This organization attempts to keep certain whale populations from becoming depleted by whaling. However, their powers are vey limited and countries such as Japan and Russia tend to ignore limits that the IWC tries to enforce.
Larrie Stone is a retired Dana College science professor.