People hunt blue whales

The question of the week: why were and are whales caught?

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The question of the week: why were and are whales caught?

Every Saturday we answer your questions on all kinds of topics. Today Kyara W. from Spiekeroog asks us: Why were and are whales caught? Here's the answer ...


Because of the many products that could be obtained from whales, the gentle giants have always been rich prey. Whales were stranded on the coasts thousands of years ago. The people who found them used the meat as food, the rich fat, the oil, was used as fuel and the bones as building material. Over time, they found out which products were best used for the whale or its components.



Grease, soap, shoehorn

For example, canned food, ham, shortening, machine fat, margarine and soap were extracted from the baleen whale (all large whales except the sperm whale, e.g. blue whale, humpback whale, orca). The beards, i.e. the horn plates in the upper jaw that the baleen whale needs to filter the water for food, were processed into fertilizer, gelatine, shoe spoons or the tips of fishing rods.

Amber, glue and lipstick

Toothed whales (for example sperm whales, dolphins or porpoises) could also be sold for profit by the hunters. They were used to make sausage, cleaning products, pens, ointments, lipstick, photo paper, glue and shoe polish, among other things. Ambergris, which is produced by the remains of undigested giant squid in the intestines of the sperm whale, was a rare and therefore expensive substance in the perfume industry in the 19th century.


Worthwhile prey for the Vikings

The first whalers were Vikings. But the Basques also caught whales in the waters of the Iberian Peninsula from the 12th century. And soon whaling spread to other nations as well. In the 17th century the English and Dutch joined them. Around 1840 there were around 900 fishing vessels around the world, which in good years hunted up to 10,000 whales.

Illustration: We humans have hunted whales since the 12th century.



Petroleum replaces whale fat

Whaling used to be a dangerous but very profitable business. It was only when oil was used as a substitute for whale fat that whale hunting lost its financial appeal. Today there is no longer a whale product that cannot be replaced by another product. For example, vegetable fats and oils have long been used instead of sperm whale fat for cosmetics.


Whaling Commission protects marine mammals

In 1931 people began to think about the protection of the whales. Some species, especially the humpback whale, were almost extinct. Special protection zones have been set up. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded in 1946 and has been responsible for safeguarding and controlling whale stocks around the world ever since. Actually, no whale should die today as a raw material supplier. Still, some nations continue whaling. These include Japan, South Korea, Norway and Iceland.

Figure: Fishermen used to document whaling in logbooks. Today marine mammals are protected by special catch quotas.

Moratorium since 1986


The so-called moratorium has been in place since 1986, which sets the commercial catch of all whale species worldwide to zero. But that does not mean a general whaling ban. States that have objected to the moratorium are not bound by it. States can also issue special permits if they wish to hunt for scientific purposes. This is sharply criticized by environmental groups, as countries such as Iceland and Japan use this regulation as a loophole for commercial whaling.

Certain ethnic groups are allowed to hunt whales

On the other hand, whaling is allowed to certain ethnic groups. For example, the Inuit in Alaska and Greenland are allowed to kill a precisely prescribed number of whales per year, as are the indigenous people in the far east of Northern Siberia and in Bequia in the Caribbean. Hunting is only allowed here for personal use. The argument put forward is that whaling is anchored in the traditional cultural heritage of the peoples and that they would never endanger the population of the animals.

Nic - May 24, 2012 / Images: pd

Note: All images and links have been removed from the archive