Yet we’ve scoured them from the seas
By the 1800’s humans were seriously engaged in whaling, seeking the lamp oil which could be boiled from the whales’ fat and the ‘corset stays’ which could be fashion of its baleen.
In the classing whaling novel Movy Dick, published in 1851, its author Melville speculated “But still another inquiry remains…. Whether owing to the almost omniscient look-outs at the mast-heads of the whaleships, now penetrating even through Behring’s straits, and into the remotest secret drawers and lockers of the world; and the thousand harpoons and lances darted along all continental coasts; the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.” Melville went on to speculate that it was unlikely due to the limits on sailing vessels.
That changed in the 1900’s. Whaling vessels switched from sail power to diesel power, and became faster than the whales themselves, made of metal, and able to travel to far seas without relying on the winds. These ships sported harpoon cannons. Once struck, a whale could not escape, and died an agonizing death.
Whaling fleets expanded. Not to the degree which would be necessary to take a reasonable amount of whalemeat every year forever, but to the degree necessary to wipe whales entirely from the sea.
Why would this be? Wouldn’t it have made sense for the whalers to only take whales to the degree that the annual take was optimized, as a permanent resources? Well yes it would have, but what actually happened was an aspect of the “tragedy of the commons”. Each whaling nation felt it was in competition with the others. If one didn’t kill all it possibly could, someone else might, and thereby get more. So it was considered more important to optimize current kills than to care about the future.
And there was another perverse wrinkle: whales reproduce very slowly, only having one calf at a time which requires years of care. Yet money invested in the bank increased more quickly. From a purely business point of view, it made sense to efficiently and methodically wipe out whale species one by one, bank the profits, and scrap the ships. And that’s what was done.
It was carnage for the whales doing the 1900’s except during WWII, when humans concentrated on killing one another. After WWII, the whalers redoubled their efforts. Japans whaling fleet was expanded at the direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the cheapest way of supplying meat protein to a defeated nation. (which is the “tradition” many Japanese became accustomed to).
In 1949, a “conservation” body was formed by whaling nations, called the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Its ostensible purpose was to provide oversight for intelligent utilization of “the whale resource”. It utterly failed at that. Rather, it gave a scientific veneer to what was being done anyway. Some nearly-eradicated whale species were “protected” on paper, but remained targets of opportunity for IWC member nations.
Since whales seemed so large and alien, scant thought was given to making the process humane, and in fact it was terrible; it was likened to killing a horse by throwing spears into it while it was forced to drag a heavy wagon.
This was done very systematically: the slower whales such as humpbacks, rights, and bowheads were already commercially extinct (meaning there weren’t enough of them left to be worth looking for). So in addition to huge floating “factory ships” which could process whale bodies in huge numbers, the harpoon ships were designed to wipe out one species and then another. First the blue whales were targeted and driven nearly entirely from the seas. Then those killer ships were scrapped and a smaller version sent after the fin whales. After the fin whales were depleted, the same thing was done for the Sei and the Brydes’ whales. Well over two million great whales were killed in this way.