Soviet whaling and New Zealand – further random topics from my brain

Over at the Envirohistory blog is my article on The Soviet whaling industry and the end of whaling in New Zealand. In short, post-World War II, New Zealand whalers were taking about 100 humpback whales per year, the huge Soviet fleets cruised past in 1960 & 1961, took 25,000, and that was the end of whaling in New Zealand.

A random topic, I know, prompted by reading a translated memoir of a Soviet whaling scientist, reprinted in a dusty copy of Marine Fisheries Review found in a pile at the back of someone else’s office. If you want a moral from this tale, here’s three:

1) Short term industry goals – whaling industries the world over were free to destroy their own resource base, to the point where the industry drove itself to the brink of extinction.
2) Ineffective regulation – for most whale species, hunting was only banned after the species was so rare that it was no longer viable to hunt. The industry was able to resist regulation until there was almost no industry.
3) Shifting baselines – what is considered a healthy ecosystem (and a viable resource) changes over time. There used to be enough whales in the three miles of sea between Kapiti Island and Param that you could catch them from row-boats, enough to make a business that employed two thousand people. Of course, that was in 1820, and we’ve forgotten, or become used to, the rareness of whales, fishes, and pretty much every form of megafauna. Fishing in the North Atlantic is much the same, with prettier graphics in the Guardian.

5 thoughts on “Soviet whaling and New Zealand – further random topics from my brain”

  1. It’s my forlorn hope that this will happen in other systems: we’ll destroy so much that it won’t be economically viable to continue destroying, but a bit will survive so we can rebuild it later. More likely we’ll just destroy everything, but hey I can hope.

    1. Well, that was the 1960s, before the environmental movement started. Since then, we’ve learnt a few things (like the fact that we have an environment), so I see some signs of progress towards managing natural resources for the long term. For example, New Zealand’s fisheries management approach (ITQ) has done a good job of revolutionising the way that the fishing industry here thinks about the remaining fish. That doesn’t mean NZ’s doing a great job, it does mean that we’re no longer quite as idiotically catastrophic as the European fishing industry.

  2. 2) Ineffective regulation – for most whale species, hunting was only banned after the species was so rare that it was no longer viable to hunt. The industry was able to resist regulation until there was nearly no industry.

    Doesn’t this sound a familiar refrain for most capitalist activities these days? The Financial Crisis of recent times, the pharmaceutical companies vs the TPPA, and the recording and movie industries spring to mind. Doubtless others can think of more examples…

    1. Yup, capitalism has done far more damage to itself than the bunch of useless hippies that make up the anti-capitalist movement.

      So I think the big political challenge of this decade is to save capitalism from itself. It’s like kids and ice cream, if you let them then they’ll eat it all now and you’ll have to clean vomit off the carpet later.

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