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Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program

Soviet Illegal Whaling in the North Pacific: Reconstructing the True Catches

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For the past several years, National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) staff have been involved in investigations of the huge campaign of illegal whaling conducted by the U.S.S.R. from 1947 to the end of the 1970s. In the Southern Hemisphere (primarily the Antarctic), the U.S.S.R. killed an estimated 338,336 whales, of which only 185,778 were officially reported to the International Whaling Commission (IWC)—a difference of more than 150,000 whales. Through the efforts of several former Soviet whale biologists, working with Dr. Bob Brownell at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, the Southern Hemisphere catch record has been largely corrected with “true” data. However, large gaps remained for Soviet whaling in the North Pacific Ocean, a gap that we have recently been able to fill because of the discovery in Russian public archives of numerous formerly secret reports from the Soviet whaling industry.

With occasional exceptions, our problem in pursuing this research has not been the lack of records, but rather the opposite: the relevant records in this formerly classified material include scientific reports, whaling production reports, and whaling inspectors’ reports—but these are filed (not always logically) with endless financial reports, labor reports, Communist Party activity reports, and innumerable other outputs from the prodigious Soviet bureaucracy.

First, some background. Whaling has a long history in the North Pacific: aboriginal subsistence whaling existed in different areas around this ocean for centuries, and commercial whaling began at the end of the 1700s, with a major expansion in the 19th century; this was sail-based whaling, which concentrated on slower species such as humpback, gray, right, bowhead, and sperm whales. Later, as innovations such as steam catcher boats and explosive harpoons were introduced, faster species such as blue, sei, and fin whales were taken, and by the early 20th century, most baleen whales were being regularly hunted in this region.

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Figure 3. Processing sperm whales on the deck of a Soviet factory ship. Photos by Nikolai Doroshenko.

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Figure 4. Objects found by Soviet whalers in the stomach of a sperm whale killed in the North Pacific. Photo by Nikolai Doroshenko.

A number of nationalities were involved in North Pacific whaling, primarily American, Canadian, British, and Norwegian. Russian whaling, however, had been virtually nonexistent with the exception of a successful operation conducted by Otto V. Lindholm (a Finn, but a Russian subject) in the Okhotsk Sea from 1864 to 1884 and a brief operation using modern methods operating from Gaydamak near Vladivostok during 1889.

In 1932, the U.S.S.R. began a commercial whaling operation in the North Pacific with a converted factory ship named Aleut, which for 16 years was the only Soviet whaling operation in this ocean. Soviet whaling expanded after World War II with the restoration, in 1948, of formerly Japanese land stations in the Kuril Islands. The Aleut fleetand catchers from the Kuril stations were operating in the western North Pacific exclusively until 1959; by that time, the whale resources in this part of the North Pacific had been heavily depleted, and the focus of the Soviet operations moved east, first to waters around the eastern Aleutian Islands and then into the Gulf of Alaska, eastern Bering Sea, and areas off the western coast of North America.

In the space of just 2 years, 1962-63, three new, large whaling factory ships were added to the Soviet North Pacific whaling operation, with the main focus remaining in the eastern North Pacific. As a result of this expansion, catches—many of them illegal—dramatically increased from 3,970 whales in 1961 to 12,945 in 1964 and continued to increase in subsequent years. Catches of sperm whales (the primary target of Soviet whalers in the North Pacific) increased five-fold from 1962 (3,035) to 1966 (15,205). Such intensive whaling continued in the North Pacific until 1969, with up to four Soviet whaling fleets working in the area simultaneously.

The high catches, both in the North Pacific and elsewhere in the world, were driven by very specific requirements of the Soviet economic system to meet or exceed annual production targets (see details in Ivashchenko et. al. 2011, Marine Fisheries Review). Because the U.S.S.R. was a signatory to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946), it was required to follow catch restrictions defined in the Schedule of the IWC. Such restrictions typically included areas in which hunting was prohibited, as well as various mandates regarding protected species and the minimum allowable length for catches of “legal” species. This created an obvious conflict with the requirements for increasing catches and production. Accordingly, the reports submitted to the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics from each Soviet whaling fleet were sanitized, with almost all illegally caught whales removed or (in some cases) replaced by falsified numbers for legal species.

So how many whales did the U.S.S.R. kill in the North Pacific? After sifting through a truly huge volume of formerly secret material, we can now reconstruct most of the catch record, which is summarized in Table 1. During 1948-79, a minimum of 190,183 whales were killed by the U.S.S.R. in the North Pacific (195,783 if one includes an estimate for sperm whales taken in years for which there are no true data); of these, only 169,638 were reported to the IWC, a difference of 20,568 whales (26,168 including the sperm whale estimate). Figures were falsified for 8 of 12 hunted species, with some catches over-reported to camouflage takes of illegal species.

Table 1. Total catches of whales in the North Pacific by the U.S.S.R., 1948-1979, by species.


Actual catch

Reported catch


Blue whale



+763 (189%)

Fin whale



-1,278 (92%)

Humpback whale



+2,654 (157%)

Sperm whale



+21,181 (116%)

Sei whale



-3,665 (68%)

Gray whale



+148 (-)

North Pacific right whale



+670 (6,191%)

Bowhead whale



+145 (-)

Baird’s beaked whale



-2 (99%)

Killer whale



0 (100%)

Bryde’s whale



-51 (99%)

Minke whale



+3 (101%)




+20,568 (112%)

*If one includes an estimate for catches in years for which no data exist, the total sperm whale catch is estimated at 159,286, and the overall total for Soviet catches in the North Pacific would be 195,783 whales.

In terms of sheer numbers, sperm whales were the major target of Soviet whalers and were pursued relentlessly throughout this ocean (Figs. 3-4). The U.S.S.R. not only under-reported total catches for this species but also falsified data on sex and length, taking huge numbers of females but reporting that they had taken large catches of males. A further tragedy was that the IWC, seeing the fake male catch numbers, lowered the minimum size limit for catches to take pressure off males by allowing more females to be taken—yet, in reality, females had already borne the brunt of the whaling.

As reported in a previous AFSC Quarterly Report, April-June 2011, another species that was extensively damaged by Soviet whaling was the North Pacific right whale, which had been theoretically protected by international agreement since 1935. It is likely that the U.S.S.R. wiped out most of the remaining right whale population in the eastern North Pacific, which today NMML estimates at only 30 animals. Most of the right whales in the Soviet catch were large, mature animals, which means that much of the prime reproductive portion of the population was destroyed. In the Sea of Okhotsk, the Soviets killed large numbers of right and bowhead whales, although the status of those populations today appears to be somewhat better. One bright spot is that humpback whales, of which the U.S.S.R. killed more than 7,000, are doing well in most parts of the North Pacific: a large international study, of which NMML was a part, recently estimated the population at more than 20,000.

Our next project, funded by the North Pacific Research Board, is to reconstruct the details of sperm whale catches in the North Pacific. This study will look at such factors in the Soviet catch as sex, length, and spatio-temporal distribution in an effort to better understand the status and population structure of this largest and most heavily exploited of the toothed whales.

Yulia Ivashchenko is an Associate Scientist at NMML and is currently finishing a Ph.D. at Southern Cross University. Phil Clapham leads NMML’s Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program (and, more importantly, is Yulia’s husband). The North Pacific Soviet whaling catch study summarized here was recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management.

By Yulia Ivashchenko and Phil Clapham





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