Inuits, Amerindians, and Vikings also used to hunt whales, but their activities did not threaten entire stocks or species. Technical innovations, growing markets, and the economic imperatives of early capitalism, however, soon greatly accelerated the predation on these majestic animals. In the late eighteenth century, commercial whaling experienced its so-called golden age. Particularly desired and sought after originally were whales with high oil content. A sub-arctic species of Greenland whales fulfilled this condition best; indeed that is why they were called "right whales."
Technological improvements in the eighteenth century led to the development of fast ships, allowing the commercial hunting of whales to begin in earnest. Whaling entrepreneurs pursued these animals to such an extent that northern right whale stocks were on the edge of extinction within a few decades. Still, the whaling industry continued full throttle, enticed by rising prices for whale products. Industrial-style whaling reached its apex in 1868, when the explosive harpoon gun was invented. These guns were mounted on steam-driven vessels, making it possible to catch the fast-swimming blue, fin, sei, and minke whales. The construction of huge "factory ships" made it possible for whalers to stay at sea for long periods, increasing dramatically the number of whales they could hunt and process. As a result of excessive hunting, commercial whaling declined sharply around 1860. The British whaling fleet, for example, declined due to over-harvesting and the introduction of vegetable oil, steel-boned corsets, and gas-fired lamps. By 1908, the whale population in the Arctic Ocean had dropped to the point where whaling was no longer a viable major industry - even in the formerly whale-rich waters of Alaska. Still, the slaughter of whales continued with increased efficiency. By 1912 the United States Whaling Corporation, for example, used what were referred to as "killing boats."70 A muzzle-loading whale gun with a 3-inch bore was used. Part of the harpoon contained an explosive, timed to detonate inside the whale. By 1925, the invention of the stern slipaway allowed whalers to haul whole carcasses aboard a factory ship to be processed. In the decades to follow, the slaughter expanded, with several tens of thousand of whales being killed for profit every year yielding millions of barrels of oil. During the winter of 1930-31 alone, some 29,000 blue whales were slaughtered.
Between 1946 and 1985, an estimated 2 million large whales fell victim to the unequal contest between the species and the commercial interests of the largest whaling nations, Norway, the former Soviet Union, and Japan.71 Commercial whaling was stopped in 1986 when the members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) came to an agreement to forgo the hunt on these gigantic sea mammals (weighing up to 130 tons). But the decision to forgo or reduce the hunt on large cetacean species was not based on "biophilia" or on an ethical revolution of inter-species sentiments on the part of the board of IWC.72 Instead, there were two more immediate causes. On the one hand, the numbers of the great whales were reduced so drastically that it was no longer commercially lucrative to hunt them; on the other, the IWC was forced to yield to the worldwide campaign of environmentalists who protested the ecocidal mass killings.
At present, only about 300 right whales survive in the North Atlantic and 250 in the North Pacific, and the species is showing no signs of recovery.73 The survival of the few remaining blue whales in the Antarctic is now imperiled by global warming. A species related to the right whale, the bowhead whale, was hunted to extinction in the Atlantic Ocean but still exists in the North Pacific. Although its numbers are minuscule, these whales are still hunted by Alaskan Inuit peoples.74 American whalers also hunted the sperm whale, first in the Atlantic from bases in New England, later in the Pacific from bases in Hawai'i.75 They also hunted the California gray whale in the lagoons of Baja California, where they go to breed, and from 16 shore stations along the coast of California. The California gray whale was hunted almost to extinction in the late 1800s, then recovered; it was hunted almost to extinction again by factory ships in the 1930s and 1940s, and recovered again.76
The scale of the early modern commercial assault on nature has been unprecedented, characteristically involving a pattern of overexploitation of species. Whereas early and classical modern commercial annihilation of the planet's species occurred primarily because of over-exploitation, in the late modern era, the commercial war on species expanded to include the outright destruction of entire ecosystems and habitats.
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