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Early whaling wiped out two species of whales in the eastern Atlantic

The industrial whaling of the 19th and 20th centuries left a lasting scar on the marine ecosystem, pushing several species towards the brink of extinction. However, even prior to this large-scale devastation, whaling’s destruction had already begun.

A new study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology shows that, despite the smaller scale of early whaling, at least two species were entirely wiped out from European waters. 

“Whaling was widespread from a very early time. This had major consequences for species in Europe,” explained Youri van den Hurk, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum.

Focus of the study

To gain deeper insight, a team of archaeologists analyzed more than 700 whale bones, dating from around 900 BCE to 1500 CE. The bones were stored in various museum collections across Europe. 

By analyzing the proteins in these bones, the experts determined the species of the whales. The research spanned from Norway in the north to Spain in the south. 

Intensive whaling activities 

The findings shed light on intensive early whaling activities conducted by many European nations, including Scandinavia, the British Isles, Belgium, France, and Spain.

In the past, every part of a whale had significant utility. Meat, blubber, bones, and oil were transformed into products ranging from food, trinkets, corsets, and even houses. 

“Historical sources show that the earliest whalers used harpoons with buoys attached to them. This enabled them to tire the animals out before using spears and lances to kill them. However, the methods may have varied from place to place,” explained van den Hurk. 

“Sources from Norway mention that spears tipped with poison were used, or that hunters cornered whales by chasing them into fjords.”

Easy targets 

The two species most affected by early whaling were those which resided close to the shores, making them easy targets. 

“We know little about the aims and scope of this pre-industrial whaling. However, archaeology and historical sources give us a valuable opportunity to find out more about this early whaling,” said van den Hurk.

Grey whales

Bones of grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus) were found in abundance. “The large prevalence surprised us, because grey whale bones have not been commonly identified in such large numbers during previous studies,” said Professor James H. Barrett.

Although the grey whale disappeared from the North Atlantic by the 18th Century, it survived in regions where whaling was not predominant.

Right whales

Another species, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), was less fortunate. Characterized by its slow speed and its habit of floating after death, it made for easy prey. 

“The species is therefore relatively easy prey for whalers. This is probably why North Atlantic right whale bones make up most of the material we find,” said Professor Barrett.

Now, right whales are on the brink of extinction, with only 300 to 400 individuals remaining, primarily along North America’s coast.

Blue whales

In the 20th century, an astonishing 1.3 million whales were slaughtered in Antarctica alone. Whaling declined after the 1960s due to the scarcity of whales.

Before modern whaling, approximately 300,000 blue whales could be found in Antarctica. Today, there are no more than 25,000 blue whales left in the world. 

Whaling continued in some countries despite the 1982 ban, with Japan and Norway often justifying it under the guise of research. Norwegian whaling remains a contentious issue internationally, even though their targets, minke whales, are not endangered.

Study implications

The past numbers of grey whales and North Atlantic right whales in Europe offer some hope for their eventual return. 

“What I find particularly interesting and useful is that the grey whale and North Atlantic right whale were so widespread in Europe, perhaps the most common groups we had, and both were completely eradicated locally,” said van den Hurk.

With lone grey whales recently spotted again in Europe, the species could possibly make a comeback. 

“Climate change has led to the Northwest Passage being ice-free for longer periods than previously. This makes it possible for grey whales to return to the North Atlantic,” said van den Hurk.

“The Northwest Passage is the sea route between Asia and Europe, located to the north of North America. Seeing as we now know where the species used to be prevalent, we also know which areas we need to protect if the grey whale ever returns.”

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