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Cetacean Assessment & Ecology Program

Disappearing Right Whales and the Secrets of Soviet Whaling

Nikolai Doroshenko and Yulia Ivashchenko
Former Soviet biologist Nikolai Doroshenko explains details of North Pacific right whale catches to Yulia Ivashchenko in St. Petersburg in September 2006. Doroshenko worked aboard the factory ship Vladivostok in the 1960s.  Photo by Phil Clapham.

Recently, the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) came into possession of a collection of internal reports written by Soviet scientists working aboard whaling factory ships in the North Pacific. At the time that these reports were written, the U.S.S.R. was engaged in a massive worldwide campaign of illegal whaling, which began in 1947 and continued until introduction of the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) International Observer Scheme in 1972.

During this period, in the Southern Hemisphere alone, the Soviets killed almost 100,000 whales that they did not report to the IWC; this included more than 48,000 humpbacks (of which 25,000 were killed in just 2 years). Illegal catches in the Northern Hemisphere (primarily in the North Pacific) were smaller, but still very substantial, and were equally or more damaging to some of the whale populations concerned.

Consequently, the Soviet scientific reports were highly secret and were intended solely for Soviet governmental consumption. They did not become available until after the Cold War, when they were provided to Bob Brownell (Southwest Fisheries Science Center) by the former Soviet biologist Fred Berzin. Berzin was the director of the marine mammal program at the Pacific Research and Fisheries Center (TINRO) in Vladivostok and the overall scientific leader for the whaling operations. The reports have now been translated for NMML by the Russian whale biologist Yulia Ivashchenko, whose broad knowledge of Russian, English, whale biology, and the mechanics of Soviet whaling was ideally suited to this task.

The Soviet reports make grim and very sad reading. They document the decline of many populations of whales due to the unrestrained illegal exploitation, and they state over and over the warnings of the authors that high levels of catches cannot be sustained without seriously depleting or even extirpating certain stocks. From the repeated laments of the authors from year to year, it is apparent that these warnings, and all other scientific advice that conflicted with the Soviet government’s production targets, were routinely ignored by the authorities.

The decline of whale populations in the North Pacific and elsewhere as a result of illegal catches was in part an inevitable result of the Soviet system of industrial planning. The government set annual targets for quantities of whale products to be obtained from the hunt and paid factory fleet crews a bonus only if these targets were exceeded * . But, when this occurred (as it did in many of the earlier years), the following year’s whaling plan would contain targets that had been ratcheted up to match the production level of the previous season. Consequently, whaling crews were forced to kill more and more whales to obtain their bonuses, and the populations concerned inevitably crashed under the pressure of over-exploitation.

Soviet floating factory Slava
Soviet floating factory Slava, circa 1965.  Photographer unknown.

The reports document dramatic declines in abundance, disappearances of whales from previously populous feeding and breeding areas, and a continual decline in the average size and age of animals in the catch as the over-exploitation reached critical levels. The fleets took everything, regardless of size, age, or reproductive status, and this disregard for the sustainability of the populations concerned became increasingly pronounced as whales became harder to find. Indeed, in 1971, the year before the International Observer Scheme came into effect, more than 45% of the mature female sperm whales killed were lactating (i.e., accompanied by a calf); as Fred Berzin noted in one of the reports, this was essentially equivalent to the birth rate.

When the International Observer Scheme was finally introduced in 1972, it was accompanied by a relaxation of the IWC regulation regarding the minimum length for sperm whale catches (from 11.6 to 9.2 m). This decision was made because of a concern by the IWC that too many males were being caught and, therefore, that the length limit should be lowered to encourage more catches of females.

Tragically, this conclusion was based largely upon falsified data from the U.S.S.R., which had been greatly over-reporting catches of males to cover up long-standing over-hunting of females. Ironically, therefore, the Soviets—now prevented from illegal hunting by the presence of international observers aboard their factory ships—were suddenly permitted to continue the exploitation of this prime reproductive portion of the population. As Fred Berzin noted in his report for 1977, “The result of this was that some breeding areas for sperm whales became deserts.”

The most notable example of the damage inflicted in the North Pacific is that of the right whale. By 1963, the eastern population of this species was showing signs of a slow recovery from the intensive historical whaling, which had begun in 1835. However, the remnant population was virtually extirpated by a Soviet catch of 372 whales between 1963 and 1967; most of these animals were taken in the southeastern Bering Sea and in an area south of Kodiak.

Recently, Yulia and I had an opportunity in Russia to meet with Nikolai Doroshenko, a biologist who was aboard the factory ship Vladivostok when they made the right whale catches. We asked him what percentage of the whales they encountered he thought they had succeeded in catching; the reply was “Pretty close to 100%.”

No biological data were taken—the KGB Commissars aboard the factory ships were aware of the extreme sensitivity of these takes and prohibited the biologists from even examining or measuring the carcasses. (In one case elsewhere the scientists were actually locked in a cabin while the whales were being processed!) However, it is known that all right whales were targeted, including lactating females and nursing calves.

The significance of these illegal catches in the recovery history of the eastern North Pacific right whale stock is difficult to overstate. That the Soviets succeeded in killing virtually all of the right whales they encountered explains much about the apparent status of this population today. In recent years, right whale sightings have been so rare in this region that single records merited publication. The discovery by a NMML cruise in August 2004 of an aggregation of at least 17 right whales represented the single largest sighting since the Soviet catches 40 years before.

Considering the intensity of the marine mammal surveys in the region over the past three decades, it is evident that right whales remain rare throughout their historical range in the eastern North Pacific, and few, if any, biologists would argue that the current population numbers more than a few tens of animals. It seems quite likely that the 372 whales killed by the Soviets comprised the bulk of the then-extant population, which was itself a remnant of a much larger stock that had been extensively exploited beginning in 1835. Today, the eastern North Pacific right whale is arguably the most endangered population of whales anywhere in the world—a direct result of the illegal whaling documented in the Soviet reports.

The collected reports have been edited by Ivashchenko, Brownell and myself, and are currently being prepared for publication as a NOAA Tech. Memo. In the meantime, they are available in a single volume from the NMML Library.

By Phil Clapham

*  Initially, blubber was the only product derived from the catch; the rest of a carcass was discarded because the refrigeration capacity of the first factory ship, the Aleut, was small. With the introduction of the larger factory ships Vladivostok and Dalniy Vostok, both blubber and meat were processed and stored, and sometimes bonemeal was also prepared. Meat was separated into that fit for human consumption and that which could be fed only to animals; interestingly, all sperm whale meat was in the latter category.

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