Soviet illegal whaling: the devil and the details

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Publication details

Ivashchenko, YV, Clapham, PJ & Brownell, RL 2011, 'Soviet illegal whaling: the devil and the details', Marine Fisheries Review, vol. 73, no. 3, pp. 1-19.

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In 1948, the U.S.S.R. began a global campaign of illegal whaling that lasted for three decades and, together with the poorly managed “legal” whaling of other nations, seriously depleted whale populations. Although the general story of this whaling has been told and the catch record largely corrected for the Southern Hemisphere, major gaps remain in the North Pacific. Furthermore, little attention has been paid to the details of this system or its economic context. Using interviews with former Soviet whalers and biologists as well as previously unavailable reports and other material in Russian, our objective is to describe how the Soviet whaling industry was structured and how it worked, from the largest scale of state industrial planning down to the daily details of the ways in which whales were caught and processed, and how data sent to the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics were falsified. Soviet whaling began with the factory ship Aleut in 1933, but by 1963 the industry had a truly global reach, with seven factory fleets (some very large). Catches were driven by a state planning system that set annual production targets. The system gave bonuses and honors only when these were met or exceeded, and it frequently increased the following year’s targets to match the previous year’s production; scientific estimates of the sustainability of the resource were largely ignored. Inevitably, this system led to whale populations being rapidly reduced. Furthermore, productivity was measured in gross output (weights of whales caught), regardless of whether carcasses were sound or rotten, or whether much of the animal was unutilized. Whaling fleets employed numerous people, including women (in one case as the captain of a catcher boat). Because of relatively high salaries and the potential for bonuses, positions in the whaling industry were much sought-after. Catching and processing of whales was highly mechanized and became increasingly efficient as the industry gained more experience. In a single day, the largest factory ships could process up to 200 small sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus; 100 humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae; or 30– 35 pygmy blue whales, Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda. However, processing of many animals involved nothing more than stripping the carcass of blubber and then discarding the rest. Until 1952, the main product was whale oil; only later was baleen whale meat regularly utilized. Falsified data on catches were routinely submitted to the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics, but the true catch and biological data were preserved for research and administrative purposes. National inspectors were present at most times, but, with occasional exceptions, they worked primarily to assist fulfillment of plan targets and routinely ignored the illegal nature of many catches. In all, during 40 years of whaling in the Antarctic, the U.S.S.R. reported 185,778 whales taken but at least 338,336 were actually killed. Data for the North Pacific are currently incomplete, but from provisional data we estimate that at least 30,000 whales were killed illegally in this ocean. Overall, we judge that, worldwide, the U.S.S.R. killed approximately 180,000 whales illegally and caused a number of population crashes. Finally, we note that Soviet illegal catches continued after 1972 despite the presence of international observers on factory fleets.