Whalemen Adventurers

by W. J. Dakin


Recent Whaling

ALTHOUGH a variety of books on whales and whaling have appeared since Professor Dakin's was published, his remains the only one surveying the history of Australian whaling and tracing the vital role of whaling in our infancy as a colony. So that this facet of our history can be followed to the present day, I shall summarize the events in our whaling since this book was written.

The attempt, mentioned by Professor Dakin, to float a new Australian company to re-open in the early thirties the whaling station at Norwegian Bay (now known as Point Cloates) was unsuccessful, and Australian shore-based whaling remained only a memory until after World War II.

There was one brief burst of activity off the north-west coast from 1936 to 1938, this time by three foreign fleets. In the winter of 1936 the factory ships Anglo-Norse and the Frango, each with six chasers , operated near (or in) Shark Bay, killing a total of 3,076 humpback whales. The Western Australian Government permitted operations within coastal waters in 1937 by the factory ships Frango and Ulysses and fourteen chasers. This winter 3,251 humpback whales were slaughtered. In the following year the Frango returned with six chasers and killed 913 humpbacks.

When post war whaling began in Australia, the Australian Government allotted separate quotas of humpback whales to each whaling station, sent inspectors to each to ensure that the regulations (virtually those of the International Whaling Commission) were obeyed, and initiated a programme of biological research upon this species. These moves were aimed at making the most efficient use of this resource with the least possible damage to the stocks of whales.

Australian shore-based whaling was first revived in July 1949, when the Nor'-West Whaling Company reopened the old "Norwegian Bay" station at Point Cloates. In the previous twenty years, rust, rot, and drifting sand had wrought havoc in the old whaling station. A cyclone which swept through in 1944 had added to the devastation. The heartbreaking task of repairing, rebuilding, and re-equipping this old station, dogged initially by lack of funds, yet resulting in a highly successful and efficient station, is a story in itself.

The Commonwealth Government had meanwhile become interested in whaling, and constituted the Australian Whaling Commission which built a new shore station on Babbage Island, near Carnarvon, in Western Australia, and commenced whaling in September 1950. After operation successfully from 1951 to 1955, the Carnarvon station was sold to Nor'-West Whaling Company, which then closed its station at Point Cloates and concentrated ships, equipment, men and quotas at Carnarvon.

In 1952 the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company commenced operations at Frenchman Bay, Western Australia, only a few hundred yards from the site of the old whaling station (of which only parts of the foundations remain). Initially this station was granted a quota of only 50 humpbacks; this was gradually increased to 175.

Post-war whaling also developed on the east coast of Australia, a new shore station built by Whale Products Pty Ltd, at Tangalooma on Moreton Island, Queensland, opened in June 1952, while another (now operated by the Byron Whaling Company) at Byron Bay on the north coast of New South Wales, opened in July 1954. Whaling was also revived at Norfolk Island, a small but efficient station opening there in August 1956.

The annual catches of humpback whales at each of these whaling stations are listed below. Other species of baleen (whalebone) whales (blue, fin, minke, Bryde's whales) have been taken occasionally, but are of little importance in our coastal whaling.

In New Zealand the station in Tory Channel has continued operating each winter, in fact it has not missed a season in the past fifty years. Catches of humpbacks have fluctuated from 18 in 1932 (restricted operations during the depression) to 226 in 1960. Another small station on Great Barrier Island took a few whales in 1956 and 1957, then was re-opened in 1959 by another company with better success.

Present day whaling round the islands of Tonga is a fascinating relic of the past. Here the natives hunt whales in old style long boats and use hand harpoons and lances copied faithfully from visiting whaleships last century. Catches may be small by modern standards, but there is a feast for the whole village in every whale landed!

Post-war Australian whaling has been highly efficient, an average of just over ten tons of oil per whale being achieved by some stations. Several stations have used aircraft, working in radio contact with the chasers, in quickly locating suitable whales and even directing the chase from the air.

But the toll of humpbacks has been too heavy, resulting in catches decreasing (both in numbers and in sizes of whales) in recent years, and chasers have had to scour larger areas of sea to find whales. We had hoped to achieve stability in humpback whaling, but the difficulties of establishing and maintaining proper international controls were not overcome.

The problems involved in obtaining international agreement upon whaling on the high seas, discussed by professor Dakin in his final chapter have continued to haunt us though many efforts have been made to reach agreement on the rational exploitation of remaining stocks of whales.

The first International Whaling Convention, signed in 1937, was applied with some modifications in 1938 and 1939. However, in spite of such agreement, the numbers of whales killed each year continued to rise, culminating in a record total world catch of 54,835 whales in 1938.

Whales enjoyed a respite during World War II, whereas the whaling ships, pressed into service as tankers, suffered severely. Of the 41 factory ships which operated in 1939, 28 were lost during the war.

An International Whaling Conference held in London in 1945 drew up regulations for early post-war whaling. This was followed by a meeting in Washington in 1946, when the International Whaling Commission was formed. The Commission has met each year since 1949 "... to establish a system of international regulation for the whale fisheries to ensure proper and effective conservation and development of whale stocks..." The regulations applied by the International Whaling Commission include minimum legal lengths for each species, protection of certain species (eg. Right whales), protection of lactating females and their calves, the setting up of sanctuaries, the fixing of periods of open season, and the limitation of the numbers animals killed each year. These measures have had a breaking effect on the exploitation of whale populations, but they have failed to halt the depletion which has become increasingly obvious.

One of the failings of the measures applied by the International Whaling Commission was the limitation of Antarctic catch by total numbers, irrespective of species (though a conversion scale was applied, ie. 2 fin, or 2.5 humpback, or 6 sei whales, were equivalent to 1 blue whale). This method of control may have been simpler to apply, but it had no scientific basis, failing to give proper protection to each species or individual populations within a species. Thus while factory ships can cover their running expenses by catching fin whales, the few remaining blue whales (now too sparse themselves to support whaling as they did thirty years ago) can still be slaughtered.

Another weakness of the controls by the International Whaling Commission is that the Commission cannot enforce its regulations. Each country has its own inspectors on its factory ships or shore stations. While most countries abide by the International regulations (very rigidly in the case of Australia), there have been claims of flagrant breaches by some pelagic expeditions. In order to ensure that everyone adhered to the provisions of the International Whaling Commission, Norway proposed in 1955 that neutral observers, responsible to the Commission, should be placed aboard every factory ship. Though this has received general agreement by the nations concerned, the changes necessary to the protocol, which have to be signed by all States signatory to the Convention, have not yet been passed.

The crippling feature in the protocol of the International Whaling Commission is the provision that no decision taken by the Commission comes into force for the signatory State that protests within a period of ninety days, to that decision. Objections to decisions of the Commission have recently resulted in certain countries withdrawing from the Commission. Unless present efforts to reach agreement on the sharing of quotas and to establish regulations based on sound scientific principles, are successful, the future of the Commission, and of whaling itself, is in jeopardy.

One trend which may help to save the whales is the declining value of whale oil in recent years. With a world shortage of edible fats after the war, the price of first quality whale oil (used for margarine) rose sharply, reaching an all time record in 1950-51, when prices ranged from £110 to £172 sterling per ton. Since then the price has fallen, the oil produced in 1961 selling at about £60 per ton. The large factory ships and fleets of chasers are expensive to equip and maintain, so that when the price of oil falls as low as £60 per ton, the pelagic expeditions can barely operate profitably. The price in March 1962 was only £50 sterling per ton. In theory, this fall in the price of whale oil could force pelagic whaling to cease, giving the stocks of whales an opportunity to recover. Instead, several of the fleets have been sold to Japan whose needs and economies are such that pelagic whaling is still an attractive, perhaps essential, venture. The U.S.S.R. has also increased her whaling fleets in recent years.

With the decline of Australian humpback whaling, there has been renewed interest in sperm whales off our coasts. As early as 1955, the station at Frenchman Bay in the west began taking sperm whales on an exploratory basis. At first there was not a great demand for sperm oil, which is a waxy oil, quite different from that of humpbacks and other baleen whales. Sometimes a buyer could not be found for oil offered at £50 per ton. However, the price of sperm oil rose to almost £100 per ton, making it more valuable than humpback oil. The station at Frenchman Bay took 454 sperm whales during 1961, and other stations were looking to sperm whaling.

As the Australian whaling industry turns to sperm whales, we find ourselves turning back the pages of historical records. Just where did those nineteenth century whalers get the best catches, and at what times of the year? At this point in the cycle we again reach for such books as Whalemen Adventurers.

R. G. Chittleborough
Sydney, May 1962.

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