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Whaling in the Spitsbergen waters

In 1596, on his attempt to find a northern sea route from Europe to China, Willem Barentsz discovered an island in the high north. He named the island Spitsbergen (spiky mountains), today one of the islands in the archipelago known as Svalbard. BY Frits Steenhuisen

History provides a clear warning about the impact of ruthless exploitation.

Willem Barentsz died on Novaya Zemlya in 1597 during this expedition, however the discovery of Spitsbergen was made public and very soon attracted the attention of Dutch and
E n g l i s h e n t r e p r e - neurs. Their main interest was the reported abundance of Greenland Right whales (also called Bowhead whales). The first whaling in the area started sometime around 1612. Initially, the whales were flensed (butchered) alongside the ships. The blubber was then cooked to render it into oil at primitive land stations. Often these stations were only used for one or two years. Later the land stations became much larger, multi-year settlements. The best-known station is probably Smeerenburg, on Amsterdam Island, Spitsbergen. Stations like Smeerenburg made it possible to process large numbers of whales. At the end of each whaling season, the barrels with train oil were shipped back to Europe. The remains of the blubber ovens and the whalers’ huts are still found on the West coast of Spitsbergen.

The hunting had a devastating impact on the whales in the area. When the Greenland Right whale population started to decline dramatically around Spitsbergen, the whale hunt shifted from Spitsbergen to Jan Mayen, and then to the Davis Straits between Greenland and Canada.

It is estimated that a total of approximately 120 thousand Greenland Right whales were caught between 1612 and 1800. The size of the population of Greenland Right whales before 1612 is estimated at 46 thousand. Currently almost no Greenland Right whales are left in the Northern Atlantic Ocean. In recent years, only some rare observations of Bowhead whales in Svalbard waters were reported.

This history provides a clear warning about the impact of ruthless exploitation of natural resources. In case of the Greenland Right whale, the reproduction rate is so low that the population does not seem to be capable of growing back to safe numbers. Even after a few hundred years, the Atlantic population is still barely clinging on.

Each year, in the Beaufort/Chuckchi Sea area, a few Bowhead whales are still taken as part of the traditional hunt by Arctic indigenous people. This subsistence hunting, which is subject to strict control and international agreement, provides traditional food that is an important part of the diet for these isolated communities. Recently, agreement on the traditional hunt has been used as a ploy in the wider international disagreements about the future of commercial whaling – with potentially damaging consequences for the physical and cultural health of the indigenous people concerned.

Further reading:
Hacquebord, L., Environment and History 7 (2001): 169-185
Hacquebord, L., 1999: Polar Research 18(2), 375- 382

Frits Steenhuisen
Arctic Centre University of Groningen,
The Netherlands