Islanders are delighted today when they see the fin or back of a whale break the water, but not long ago, Heidi Bevington writes, whalers here greeted them with smiles and the hardened steel of a harpoon point. In the first half of the 19th century close to 10,000 whales were killed around the islands.
A history of whaling and whale conservation is part of a larger research paper, ‘Living Marine Legacy of Gwaii Haanas’, about marine mammals around the islands written by Dr. Norm Sloan and Patrick Bartier of Gwaii Haanas along with three other researchers. It points out that whales were heavily hunted for centuries, but mid-way through the last century conservation measures began, and some species like the Gray whale are making a solid recovery.
Commercial whalers recorded 9,400 kills-mostly sperm, fin and humpback whales, according to the researchers. The islands had two whaling stations, one in the south, one in the north: Rose Harbour (1910-1943) and Naden Harbour (1911-1941) and whalers from southern BC travelled to hunt around the islands as well.
The Haida people also harvested whales, although it’s not clear whether they hunted them or only used animals that washed ashore. Haida hunters had suitable boats and tools, and hunted smaller mammals like dolphins and seals. And whale bones made up 70-percent of the mammal remains found in a site at Cape Freeman, so it’s possible they were whalers, although not on the scale of the commercial whalers that arrived in the 19th century.
Whale conservation began in 1931 when 26 nations signed the first International Whaling Convention to protect right and gray whales as well as juveniles, mothers and calves of all species. However, two of the biggest whaling nations-Russia and Japan-refused to sign, and whale stocks continued to decline though out that decade.
Gray whales were perilously close to extinction by 1900 after heavy whaling in their calving lagoons along the Baja coast. In 1938 they received international protection, and since then they have rebounded to about 26,635 in 1998.
Islanders can see them each spring in Skidegate Inlet where they pause to feed on tiny animals like shrimp and crab larvae during their two-month migration from Baja to Alaska. They are also spotted at Cape St. James and Langara Island.
They usually travel in groups of 1to 5 although larger groups of 15 and even 30 have been spotted.
Although the gray whales along the Pacific Coast of North America have rebounded, another group, the ‘Korean Stock’, is critically endangered, and the North Atlantic gray whales were hunted to extinction in the early 18th century.
In 1946, 40 nations agreed to regulate the industry and conserve stocks with the International Whaling Commission, the first global resource management body. Whale populations continued to decline until 1982 when an international moratorium on whaling was declared.
Canada has protected all marine mammals since 1970. Blue, Sei and North Pacific Right whales as well as the southern resident Killer whales of southern BC are listed as endangered. Humpback, northern resident and transient Killer whales are considered threatened. Recovery strategies for all these species have been written under the Species At Risk act.
Collecting information about whales is tricky, according to the researchers, because the animals are difficult to spot, there aren’t many people around to see them, and they travel over a wide range.
Much of the historical research on whale populations comes from whaling records that listed the location and types of whales killed. Recent research has focused on photo identification. By taking photos of a whale’s features like a tail fluke or an identifying fin, researchers can monitor if they are seeing the same whale over and over, or different whales.
In order to protect whales, more information is needed, and one way people can help is by reporting whale sightings and strandings to the BC Cetacean Sighting Network. Anyone interested in a copy of the Living Marine Legacy of Gwaii Haanas can contact Dr. Sloan at Gwaii Haanas in Queen Charlotte.
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