New Zealand and Australia are these days passionately opposed to commercial whaling, a stance that in recent weeks has put them at odds with significant trading partner Japan.
But it wasn’t always that way – the 1830s and 1840s were the golden age of whaling in New Zealand and Australia as whalers, predominantly from America, took to our seas harpoon in hand, seeking the rich whale blubber, meat, oil and bone that was in such demand around the world.
The captains of these ships kept detailed logs of where the whales were caught or sighted, taking careful note of their frequently used habitats to avoid fruitless searches of the seas. Now researchers are using those logs to better understand the movements of southern right whales and sperm whales in the Pacific and the Tasman Sea.
This from a release on the research NIWA put out today:
’We are using these data, that are over a hundred years old, to tell us what the key foraging, migratory, and frequently used habitats were for southern right whales and sperm whales, because abundance levels were high in the 19th century before heavy whaling,’ says NIWA marine ecologist Dr Leigh Torres.
Apparently the log books and historic records, compiled by the World Whaling History project, contain the locations of 46,000 strikes or sightings of whales – as well as records of where the whalers searched for whales but came up empty-handed.
The scientists want to compare the distribution of whales back when they were being hunted with today. Dr Torres adds:
’Using data from a long time period and a large area, we hope to predict where whales are within tens of kilometres during certain months.’
The idea is that scientists gain a fairly accurate picture of where whales congregate so that fishing activity involving long lines and nets, oil drilling and active shipping routes can avoid these areas in the name of conservation. Scientists already have a pretty good idea of how whale numbers have changed from the 1830s when whaling in the region was at its peak. Back then, there was an estimated 27,000 southern right whales in New Zealand waters. Now there are 5000. Sperm whale numbers are harder to pinpoint on a regional scale. Says NIWA:
Sperm whales are classified as threatened which means that they are likely to become endangered. The numbers of sperm whales in New Zealand waters are unknown, but a recent global estimate was about a million whales during the pre-whaling era, with about 32% of this original population level remaining in 1999, 10 years after the end of large-scale hunting. The percentage reduction in New Zealand waters is likely to be similar.
This is not the first time old ship’s log books have come in handy to scientists. Last year, climatoligists began using data form Captain Cook’s log books to gain a better picture of historic temperature, ice formation, air pressure and wind speed trends.