Just how many whales did swim in our oceans centuries ago? Fred Pearce writing in New Scientist of the 9th February reports that some scientists think it might be a lot more than we originally thought.
He reports that genetic techniques for analysing whale populations, alongside fresh historical analysis, suggest that whales may once have been the dominant species in the world's oceans. Pearce notes that Stephen Palumbi and Joe Roman of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station have argued, to a mostly hostile audience it must be said that whilst the IWC believed that before large-scale whaling began, the North Atlantic was home to about 20,000 humpback whales, Roman and Palumbi estimated the pre-exploitation population was more than twenty times as great, at 240,000. Globally, they suggested, there may have once been 1.5 million humpbacks, rather than the 100,000 estimated by the IWC.How many whales were lost in early whaling, let alone in the industrial whaling of the 20th century.
The Norwegian naval captain N. Juel (1892) described whale spearing as, ‘…highly destructive for the whale population but gives only a small and uncertain yield’. Indeed spear whaling, with a struck and lost rate greater than the 50% of the Old Basque whaling, was officially characterized as ‘the most wasteful of all hunting methods’ and in order to prevent its revival was banned under the Norwegian Whaling Act of 1896.Of course this is an embarrassment to the IWC as it would mean that whaling would never resume, and so so far many government scientists have refused to contemplate the work as it challenges the foundation of their assumptions. It would also make a mockery of all the clams that whales need to be 'culled' to allow other marine life to thrive. Indeed a recent paper on genetic studies of Antarctic minke whales just published in Molecular Ecology, states‘… research suggests that direct competition for food is not keeping the [other species] large whale populations from recovering’.
So an ocean that teemed with whales and a healthy environment may have been our inheritance, and could be the future - but only if we learn to leave the whales well alone.