Whale species in Europe have disappeared long before whaling became a major industry. Two of the most common species are no longer found, and one of them is almost extinct. Whaling was widespread from a very early time, with major consequences for species in Europe. Archaeologists examined 719 whale bones from various museum collections in Europe, most of which originated from around 900 BCE to 1500 CE. Whaling, practiced by people from various European countries, can be traced back to the proteins found in bone material.
Coastal species disappeared first, as everything from a whale weighing several tonnes had a use. Whale meat and blubber were eaten, whale oil was used to light lamps, and whale bones were made into everything from corsets to houses to trinkets. Historical sources show that the earliest whalers used harpoons with buoys attached to them to tire the animals out before using spears and lances to kill them. However, methods may have varied from place to place, with sources from Norway mentioning spears tipped with poison or hunters cornering whales by chasing them into fjords.
In the 19th century, whalers began catching larger whales in less time, including the giant blue whale and fin whale. Modern ships allowed whalers to travel to distant regions of the Arctic and Antarctic, with Norwegians Erik Eriksen and Svend Foyn’s grenade harpoon being particularly effective. However, whale stocks were usually poorly managed.
Both species that disappeared early from Europe were whales that stayed close to the shore, making them particularly vulnerable to hunting. Archaeology and historical sources provide valuable insights into this early whaling. The grey whale, one of the species found in bones, was found in parts of the North Atlantic as early as the Middle Ages and disappeared completely by the 18th century. The species currently has two viable populations in the Pacific Ocean, but has not returned to the Atlantic, except for occasional stray whales.
Despite not seeing grey whales along the Norwegian coast or elsewhere in Europe, the species survived in areas where whaling was not as common at the time. The aims and scope of this pre-industrial whaling are still unknown, but archaeology and historical sources offer valuable insights into this early whaling.
The North Atlantic right whale, once widespread along Europe’s coast until the 18th century, is in serious trouble due to its slow swimming and large amount of blubber. Today, only 300-400 individuals remain, mostly found along North America’s coast. Whaling no longer poses a threat to this species, but it is not good for a species that lives in coastal areas with heavy shipping traffic.
Several species are almost extinct, with 1.3 million whales killed in Antarctica alone over 70 years. Whaling declined after the 1960s due to the scarcity of whales and the profitability of hunting them. The blue whale, once common in Norway, is an example of how wrong things went. Approximately 300,000 blue whales could be found in Antarctica before modern whaling, but now there are no more than 25,000 left in the world, divided into several subspecies. A total ban on whaling was only introduced in 1982, but Norway, Japan, and Iceland continue their activities, often citing research as an alibi.
Norwegian whalers have killed 15,000 minke whales since 1982, but the local population is around 100,000. Although whaling is limited, whale meat remains common in Norwegian freezer counters, suggesting a possible grey whale return.
The grey whale and North Atlantic right whale were once widespread in Europe, but they were completely eradicated. However, lone grey whales have been spotted in Europe, suggesting a possible comeback. Climate change has led to longer ice-free periods in the Northwest Passage, allowing grey whales to return to the North Atlantic. This knowledge helps identify areas to protect if the grey whale ever returns, as it helps determine which areas need to be protected. This information is crucial for preserving the species’ habitat.