New Bedford Scientist: 2.9 Million Whales Were Killed in the 20th Century

Robert Rocha tallied how many whales we killed in the 20th century. His findings have grim implications.


Whale photo via Shutterstock

In late 2012, Robert Rocha of the New Bedford Whaling Museum set out on a daunting and depressing mission: to calculate the number of whales that had been slaughtered throughout the 20th century.

After two and a half years of pouring over data sets, Rocha and his colleagues have determined that at least 2.9 million whales were killed between 1900-1999, far exceeding previous estimates and raising new concerns about the future outlook of certain species.

“I knew a lot of whales had been killed, but I had no idea that the number was going to be that high,” says Rocha, whose findings were detailed this month in the journal Marine Fisheries Review. “I was really surprised at how much whaling was going in the ’50s and ’60s.”

The study draws a clear distinction between the period of “Yankee whaling” associated with New England—Boston, Gloucester, and New Bedford in particular—and the industrialized era of whaling, which came to prominence in the early 1900s with the advent of exploding harpoon guns and steam-powered whaling vessels. Yankee whaling—also known as open-boat whaling, the type depicted in Moby Dick—was on the decline in the late 1880s. New Bedford was the last holdout in the U.S.

“It literally ended in New Bedford in 1925. There was a two-mast schooner that came back in 1925 with a few hundred barrels of sperm whale oil. That was it,” Rocha says.

From then on out, the mass-market approach dominated the industry and essentially “emptied the oceans” of whales. To illustrate this point, the study notes, “Between 1900 and the middle of 1962, the same number of sperm whales had been killed by industrial methods as had been taken during the 18th and 19th centuries.”

During the century the study examined, an astonishing 560,000 sperm whales, nearly a million fin whales, and 379,000 blue whales were killed. Blue whales remain endangered, with only 10,000 estimated to be left in the wild.

One particularly noteworthy element of Rocha’s study is that it includes some of the most accurate data on Soviet whaling fleets ever compiled. It was common that Soviet biologists kept two sets of books—one accurately documenting all the kills, and one with fudged numbers that would be turned over to the International Whaling Commission.

“We ended up finding out that they were taking whales smaller than IWC permitted, that they were taking females, that they were taking calves,” Rocha says. “But it’s not like you can blame the Soviets for all the other millions of animals that were killed. There were certainly plenty of other countries involved. It was a global business.”

Among the factors that compelled Rocha to carry out the study is that some visitors to the New Bedford Whaling Museum end up feeling sad, associating the rich history with the present plight of whales. But Rocha says it was the industrialized approach of the 20th century that truly decimated the whales.