World’s whaling slaughter tallied

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The first global estimate of the number of whales killed by industrial harvesting last century reveals that nearly 3 million cetaceans were wiped out in what may have been the largest cull of any animal — in terms of total biomass — in human history. The devastation wrought on whales by twentieth-century hunting is well documented. By some estimates, sperm whales have been driven down to one-third of their pre-whaling population, and blue whales have been depleted by up to 90%. Although some populations, such as minke whales, have largely recovered, others — including the North Atlantic right whale and the Antarctic blue whale — now hover on the brink of extinction. But researchers had hesitated to put a number on the global scale of the slaughter. That was largely because they did not trust some of the information in the databases of the International Whaling Commission, the body that compiles countries’ catches and that manages whaling and whale conservation, says Robert Rocha, director of science at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

Rocha, together with fellow researchers Phillip Clapham and Yulia Ivashchenko of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, Washington, has now done the maths, in a paper published last week in Marine Fisheries Review (R. C. Rocha Jr, P. J. Clapham and Y. V. Ivashchenko Mar. Fish. Rev. 76, 37–48; 2014). “When we started adding it all up, it was astonishing,” Rocha says. The researchers estimate that, between 1900 and 1999, 2.9 million whales were killed by the whaling industry: 276,442 in the North Atlantic, 563,696 in the North Pacific and 2,053,956 in the Southern Hemisphere.

Other famous examples of animal hunting may have killed greater numbers of creatures — such as hunting in North America that devastated bison and wiped out passenger pigeons. But in terms of sheer biomass, twentieth-century whaling beat them all, Rocha estimates. “The total number of whales we killed is a really important number. It does make a difference to what we do now: it tells us the number of whales the oceans might be able to support,” says Stephen Palumbi, a marine ecologist at Stanford University in California. He thinks that 2.9 million whale deaths is a “believable” figure.  Nature  Original web page at Nature

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