Moby Dick got lucky.
A total of nearly three million whales were killed in the 20th century, according to a new estimate -- a number driven by rapid advances in hunting technology and illegal catches by nations like the Soviet Union. And the full number of whales killed may be even higher in what researchers call "the largest hunt in human history."
The study attempts to tally the number of whales that were killed as whaling transformed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from an enterprise carried out by men with rowboats to an industrialized effort capable of processing the sea mammals at a previously unimagined pace. The hunt expanded rapidly, with international calls as early as the 1920s to put restrictions on whaling as the industry threatened to bring about its own demise through overhunting.
The new number is "believable" and "likely an underestimate," said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants Program, who was not involved in the study. "The question is, given the state of today's oceans and the status of some whales, can depleted populations recover to their pre-whaling historical levels?"
The study, titled "Emptying the Oceans: A Summary of Industrial Whaling Catches in the 20th Century," relied on whale catch databases maintained by the International Whaling Commission, as well as corrected counts for Soviet kills that went misreported for years. In total, the researchers estimate that about 2.9 million whales were killed for commercial purposes between 1900 and 1999.
The study was co-authored by Robert C. Rocha of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, National Marine Mammal Laboratory researcher Phillip J. Clapham, and Yulia V. Ivaschenko.
While whaling remains in the popular imagination an industry that had its golden age in the era of sails and hand-thrown harpoons, it really only hit its lethal stride in the early years of the 20th century. In the 1920s, more than 175,000 whales were killed worldwide, and that number shot up over the ensuing decades, according to the new report.
At its peak in the 1950s, whaling in the Southern Hemisphere alone accounted for a catch of more than 469,000 whales. Fin whales (with 874,000 killed) and sperm whales (761,000) were the two most hunted species worldwide, and account for nearly 57 percent of the whales caught and processed in the 20th century, according to the report. Across the industry, whalers established a pattern of hunting down one species of whale to low numbers, then moving on to another species.
An international moratorium mostly put a stop to international whaling after 1986, with some exceptions. Japan has been capturing and killing whales under an exemption for scientific research that conservationists have called a guise for a commercial market.
Hunt numbers dropped off radically after the moratorium was imposed, with an estimated 7,170 whales killed in the '90s, the report says.
Despite the decline of large-scale whaling in the last 30 years, current threats to whale populations include ocean noise from sources like military sonar and shipping vessels, collisions with ships, and changes in climate that stand to alter the habitats of whales and their food sources, according to Rosenbaum.
"The paper clearly demonstrates what whaling did to a number of whale populations and species, some on the brink of extinction. Why would we want to turn back to that world?" Rosenbaum said. "Whales are some of the most iconic animals on the planet."