Hunting of Marine Mammals


Ancient middens testify to the importance of marine mammals in the lives of early maritime people around the world. Many of the bones and bone fragments found in such sites probably came from animals that were scavenged from beaches. However, ingenious methods of capturing pinnipeds, sirenians, and cetaceans eventually were developed, and the archaeological refuse came to signify past hunting. The rewards were tempting—large amounts of nutritious meat and fat, hides, ivory, sinews for sewing, and bones for making household implements or weapons. These products eventually came to have high commercial value, fueling global whaling and sealing industries in modern times.

Among the marine mammals, no taxonomic group has been entirely spared from hunting pressure. However, some species have been hunted more intensively than others. The great whales (the sperm whale Phtjscter inacrocephalus and the baleen whales) have been sought for their oil, meat, and baleen: pinnipeds for their oil or pelts; sea otters (Enhydra lutris) for their furs; and sirenians mainly for their flesh and skins. In contrast, some dolphin populations have hardly been hunted at all, and they remained secure until the advent and proliferation of unselective fishing methods, which result in the incidental killing of nontar-get organisms. Marine mammals have also been hunted with the intention of reducing their predation on valued resources such as fish, cmstaceans. or mollusks (Northridge and Hofman, 1999). This culling, often implemented through government-sponsored bounty programs, is similar to that directed at wolves, mountain lions, and other predators in parts of North America, with the outspoken support of ranchers and sport hunters.

I. Hunting of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises

People in the Arctic were hunting bowhead whales (Bal-aena mysticetus) as long ago as the middle of the first millennium, and western Europeans were taking right whales (Eu-balaena facialis) by the beginning of the second (Ellis, 1991; McCartney, 1995). While the technology and culture of subsistence whaling spread within the Arctic and sub-Arctic from the Bering Strait region, the Basques were responsible for the development and spread of commercial whaling (see Section V). From its beginnings in the Bay of Biscay, this whaling eventually reached all of the world’s oceans and involved people of many nationalities. Modern whaling, characterized by engine-driven catcher boats and deck-mounted harpoon cannons firing explosive grenades, began in Norway in the 1860s (T0n-nessen and Johnsen, 1982). A key feature of modern whaling was that it made possible the routine capture of any species, including the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), fin whale (B. phijsolus), and other fast-swiMMiNG balaenopterines. In the first three-quarters of the 20th century, factory ships from several nations (e.g., Norway, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union) operated in the Antarctic, the richest whaling ground on the planet. At its preWar peak in 1937-1938, the industry’s 356 catcher boats, associated with 35 shore stations and as many floating factories, killed nearly 55,000 whales, 84% of them in the Antarctic.

Commercial whaling declined in the 1970s as a result of conservationist pressure and depletion of whale stocks. The last whaling stations in the United States and Canada were closed in 1972, and the last station in Australia ceased operations following the 1978 season. By the end of the 1970s, only Japan, the Soviet Union, Norway, and Iceland were still engaged in commercial whaling. With the decision by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1982 to implement a global moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan and the Soviet Union made their final large-scale factory-ship expeditions to the Antarctic in 1986/1987, and Japan stopped its coastal hunt for sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni) in 1988. Iceland closed its whaling station in 1990 and shortly thereafter withdrew its membership in the IWC. Contrary to the widespread belief that commercial whaling had ended, however, Norway and Japan continued their hunting of minke whales through the 1990s. By formally objecting to the moratorium decision, Norway reserved its right to carry on whaling. Thus, Norwegian whalers continued to kill more than 500 northern minke whales per year in the North Atlantic. Using a provision in the whaling treaty that allows member states to issue permits to hunt protected species for scientific research, Japan continued taking more than 400 southern minke whales in the Antarctic and 100 northern minke whales in the western North Pacific each year. In 1999, the Icelandic parliament approved the resumption of a shore-based commercial hunt. Because the main incentive for commercial whaling in the 1990s was Japanese demand for whale meat, Norway and Iceland were eager to reopen the international trade in whale products. Norway continued to stockpile meat and blubber in anticipation that the trade ban under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora would be lifted.

The hunting of smaller cetaceans has generally been confined to coastal waters and conducted on a smaller, or at least localized, scale. There are, however, some examples of large, well-organized hunts (Mitchell, 1975). Fishermen in the Faroe Islands have continued to kill hundreds, and in some years well over a thousand, long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) and Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus) in a drive fishery that is centuries old. The driving method involves a number of small boats that herd the animals into shallow water where they can be killed with lances, long knives, or firearms. There has also been a long-standing drive fishery in Japan, taking a variety of delphinid species, most notably striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba). The Japanese hunt for small cetaceans involves other methods as well, including the hand-harpooning of dolphins and Dall’s porpoises (Phocoenoides dalli) and the use of harpoon guns to take short-finned pilot whales (G. macrorhynchus) and other medium-sized cetaceans.

A large commercial hunt for dolphins (Delphintis delphis and Tursiops truncatus) and harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) was conducted in the Black Sea from the 19th century through the mid-1960s (the Soviet Union banned dolphin hunting in 1966), and this hunting with rifles and purse seines continued in the Turkish sector until at least 1983.

Aboriginal hunters in Russia, the United States (Alaska), Canada, and Greenland kill several tens of bowhead whales, 100-200 gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus), and many hundreds of white whales (Delphinaptenis leucas), narwhals (Mon-odon monoceros), and harbor porpoises (Greenland only) each year (Fig. 1). This hunting is primarily for food, and the products are generally consumed locally or sold within proscribed markets (see Section V). In recent years, aboriginal whalers in Washington State (USA), British Columbia (Canada), and Tonga (a South Pacific island nation) have expressed interest in reestablishing their own hunts for large cetaceans. In fact, in the spring of 1999, the Makali tribe in Washington took their first gray whale in more than 50 years.

Adult white whales (belugas) killed by Eskimos in Kasegaluk Lagoon near Point Lay on the Chukchi Sea coast of Alaska in July 1993. Canoes powered by outboard motors are used to drive the whales toward shore before killing them with rifles (top). The flukes, flippers, and skin with adhering blubber (locally called maktak) are saved as a delicacy (bottom).

Figure 1 Adult white whales (belugas) killed by Eskimos in Kasegaluk Lagoon near Point Lay on the Chukchi Sea coast of Alaska in July 1993. Canoes powered by outboard motors are used to drive the whales toward shore before killing them with rifles (top). The flukes, flippers, and skin with adhering blubber (locally called maktak) are saved as a delicacy (bottom).

II. Pinnipeds

Sealing began in the Stone Age when people attacked hauled-out animals with clubs (Bonner, 1982). Later methods included the use of harpoons thrown from skin boats and gafflike instruments for killing pups on ice or beaches. Traps and nets were used as well. The introduction of firearms transformed the hunting of pinnipeds and caused an alarming increase in the proportion of animals that were killed but not retrieved, especially in those hunts where the animals were shot in deep water before first being harpooned. This problem of “sinking loss” also applies to many cetacean hunts.

In addition to their meat and fat, the pelts of some seals, especially the fur seals and phocids, are of value in the garment industry. Markets for oil and sealskins fueled commercial hunting on a massive scale from the late 18th century through the early 20th century (Busch, 1985). The ivory tusks and tough, flexible hides of walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) made these animals exceptionally valuable to both subsistence and commercial hunters. At least 10,000 walruses are killed every year, most of them by the native people of northeastern Russia, Alaska, and northeastern Canada. The killing is accomplished mainly by shooting. The meat, blubber, and skin are eaten by people or fed to dogs, while the tusks are either used for carving or sold as curios. Native hunters in the circumpolar north also kill more than a hundred thousand seals each year, mainly ringed seals (Pusa hispida) but also bearded (Erignathus barbatus), ribbon (Histriophoca fasciata), harp (Pagophilus groenlandicus), hooded (Cystophora cristata), and spotted seals (Phoca largha) (Fig. 2). Seal meat and fat remain important in the diet of many northern communities, and the skins are still used locally to make clothing, dog traces, and hunting lines. There is also a limited commercial export market for high-quality sealskins and a strong demand in Oriental communities for pinniped penises and bacula. The sale of these items, along with walrus and narwhal ivory, white whale and narwhal skin (maktak), and polar bear (Ursus maritimus) hides and gall bladders, has helped offset the economic losses in some local hunting communities caused by the decline in international sealskin markets.

Greenlanders butchering a bearded seal in Wol-stenholme Fjord in June 1988. Bearded seals are especially prized by native people of the circumpolar north because of their tasty meat and tough, flexible hide. The hide is used to make leather lines, boat and tent covers, boot soles, and various other items.

Figure 2 Greenlanders butchering a bearded seal in Wol-stenholme Fjord in June 1988. Bearded seals are especially prized by native people of the circumpolar north because of their tasty meat and tough, flexible hide. The hide is used to make leather lines, boat and tent covers, boot soles, and various other items.

The scale of commercial sealing, like that of commercial whaling, has declined considerably since the 1960s. It continues, however, in several parts of the North and South Atlantic. After a period of drastically reduced killing in the 1980s, the Canadian commercial hunt for harp and hooded seals has been reinvigorated, at least in part as a result of governmental subsidies. An estimated 350,000 harp seals were taken by hunters in eastern Canada and West Greenland in 1998 (Lavigne, 1999). A few tens of thousands of molting pups are clubbed to death on the sea ice, but the vast majority of the killing is accomplished by shooting.

Norwegian and Russian ships continue to visit the harp and hooded seal grounds in the Greenland Sea (“West Ice”) and Barents Sea (“East Ice”), taking several tens of thousands of seals annually. Also, thousands of South African fur seals (Arc-tocephalus pusillus pusillus) and South American fur seals (A. australis) have been taken annually in southwestern Africa and Uruguay, respectively. These hunts are centuries old, having been driven initially by commercial markets for skins and oil and, more recently, by the Oriental demand for seal penises and bacula. Also, especially in Africa, the hunt has been justified as a response to concerns about competition between seals and fisheries.

III. Sirenians

Sirenians have been hunted mainly for their delectable meat and blubber and their strong hides. The Steller’s sea cow (Hy-drodamalis gigas) was hunted to extinction within about 25 years of its discovery by European sea otter and fur seal hunters. Much like tortoises on tropical islands, the sea cows were easy to catch and provided local sustenance to ship crews, enabling the men to carry on their pursuit of fur, oil, and other valuable resources. Local people in West Africa and Central and South America used manatee hides to make shields, whips, glue, and plasters for dressing wounds. Large-scale commercial killing of Amazonian manatees (Trichechus inunguis) to supply mixira (fried manatee meat preserved in its own fat) took place in Brazil from the 1780s to the late 1950s, and manatee hides were in great demand for making heavy-duty leather products and glue between 1935 and 1954 (Domning, 1982). Dugongs (Dugong dugon), like manatees, have long been a prized food source for seafaring people throughout their extensive Indo-Pacific range (Nietschmann, 1984). It is impossible to make a reasonable guess of how many manatees are killed by villagers each year in West Africa and South America, but the total (three species, combined) is probably in the thousands. Hunting of dugongs continues in much of their range, including areas where the species is almost extinct.

Sirenians have been captured using many different methods, apart from simply stalking and lancing or harpooning them from boats, or setting nets to enmesh them. People in West Africa and South America developed ingenious fence traps and drop traps to catch manatees. These could be baited to attract the animals or just placed strategically to take advantage of their natural movements through constricted channels. Dugong hunters in some areas used underwater explosives to kill their prey. In Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, portable platforms were set up on seagrass beds, and the hunter waited there overnight for opportunities to spear unsuspecting dugongs as they grazed.

IV. Sea Otters and Polar Bears

Sea otters have been cursed by the luxuriance of their pelts, which are among the most desirable of all mammalian furs. They were hunted remorselessly to supply the Oriental market from the 1780s onward—until very few were left and protection came in 1911. As otters were depleted in a region, hunting efforts there would be redirected at fur seals. Although anchored nets were sometimes used to catch sea otters (Kenyon, 1969), most of the hunting was conducted by men in boats, using lances initially and rifles later on. In California, otters were sometimes shot by men standing on shore, and in Washington, shooting towers were erected at the surf line and Indians were employed to swim out and retrieve the carcasses (Busch, 1985). Aboriginal people in Alaska are still allowed to hunt sea otters as long as the furs are used locally to make clothing or authentic handicraft items. The reported annual kill during the mid-to late-1990s was in the range of 600-1200.

Polar bears have always been prime targets of Eskimo hunters, and non-Eskimo sport hunters have taken large numbers of bears as trophies (Stirling, 1988). At least several hundred polar bears are still killed each year, most of them by Eskimos for meat and the cash value of their hides. In Canada, the hunting permits allocated to native communities are often sold to sport hunters, on condition that a local guide accompany the hunter and that only the head and hide be exported. These expeditions generally inv olve dogsled travel, thus rein-vigorating a traditional mode of winter transportation while at the same time creating a need for more hunting—to obtain fish and marine mammal meat to feed to the dogs. Today, polar bears are killed almost exclusively by shooting them with high-powered rifles, but in the past they were also hunted with baited set-gun traps in Svalbard. A small number of polar bears are killed each year in self-defense.

V. Market (Commercial) vs Subsistence (Household-Use) Hunting

An important, although often problematical, distinction has been made between hunting for profit and hunting as a means of survival. This distinction is more than academic. The nature and degree of regulation have often depended on how a given hunter’s enterprise was classified. The dichotomy between “commercial” and “subsistence” exploitation has had particular meaning in the context of the worldwide regulation of whaling. The IWC recognizes “aboriginal subsistence” whaling as a special category and has traditionally exempted certain groups of whalers from regulation. Similarly, many national and multilateral restrictions on sealing have applied only or primarily to industrial operations and not to “aboriginal” hunters hunting for “subsistence” (e.g., the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act and the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention).

Initially, the reasoning behind such special treatment was that these hunters used less destructive or wasteful gear and methods, and served only local, relatively small markets. However, those criteria are now called into question as aboriginal hunters have adopted modern weaponry and mechanized transport, and have increasingly chosen to sell their produce for cash. Some products, notably sealskins and the ivoiy obtained from walruses and narwhals, enter a global marketplace.

Anthropologists argue that the term “subsistence” should be broadly defined and not exclude cash-based exchanges when these occur within a context that emphasizes local production and consumption. They point to the fact that modern Eskimos, for example, are simply adapting to a changing world by hunting marine mammals with rifles, outboard motors, and snowmobiles. Only by selling skins, tusks, and, in the case of polar bears, their own services as hunting guides are these traditional hunters able to obtain the cash needed to live comfortably while continuing to be engaged in a domestic mode of production, providing highly esteemed and nutritious food for their home communities. Indeed, the IWC still considers Greenland whaling for minke and fin whales to be “aboriginal subsistence” whaling even though most of the whales are killed with deck-mounted harpoon guns firing explosive grenades and the meat and other products enter a country-wide, cash-based exchange network (Caulfield, 1997). At the same time, the IWC has resisted Japan’s efforts to have “small-type coastal” whaling, which also serves a domestic but cash-based market, reclassified as something other than commercial whaling.

The difficulty of distinguishing commercial from subsistence hunting is not unique to situations involving marine mammals. Similar issues have arisen in relation to the trade in “bush meat” in Africa, Asia, and the Neotropics. Unregulated hunting is incompatible with the concept of sustainability. Considering the enormous increases in killing power afforded by firearms and mechanized transport, together with rapid human population growth and the attendant rise in resource consumption, we are long past a time when racial or cultural entitlement can be allowed to preclude a vigorously enforced management regime based on conservation principles.

VI. Future Hunting

For two reasons, the hunting of marine mammals in the foreseeable future is unlikely to approach the scale at which it was pursued throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century. First, the populations of many species remain far below earlier levels. Even if some recovery is achieved, the environmental carrying capacity has almost certainly declined in many instances. Considering the low productivity of these relatively large, long-lived animals, it is unrealistic to expect their aggregate biomass to return to “pristine” levels in a world so thoroughly transformed by human endeavor. Second, attitudes toward marine mammals have changed considerably, and any initiative to expand the scope or scale of hunting is subject to public scrutiny as never before. Many people, particularly in the United States, Europe, and Australasia, are morally opposed to the killing of cetaceans, if not all marine mammals. While this certainly does not mean that hunting will stop altogether, it does make it more likely that hunters will need to prove that their enterprise is both sustainable (within the productive capacity of the affected animal population) and humane.

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