Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Greatest Extermination in History: How Humans won the war on Whales


Image from the NYT. This dead whale on a California beach and the man taking a selfie in front of it symbolizes the war of humans on whales. The whales lost in what was probably the largest extermination of a non-human species in history. You'll find more details on this epic story in the upcoming book by Ugo Bardi and Ilaria Perissi "The Empty Sea" to be published by Springer



With the start of the 19th century (according to the human calendar), the lines were drawn: the two major vertebrate groups on Earth were squaring off against each other. On one side, the homo sapiens, the last survivor of the hominin genus, a bipedal primate with remarkable technical abilities. On the other side, the 89 species of the Cetacea order, known to humans as "whales," large aquatic animals that dominated the marine trophic chain.

When the war began, there were some 4 million whales in the Earth's ocean, for a total mass of some 120 million tons. On land, humans numbered about one billion individuals, but their total mass was less than 100 million tons. It looked like a fair fight but, in reality, the whales never had a chance.

The whales probably never understood what befell them: their powerful sonar systems worked only underwater and couldn't tell them of the menace that was coming from above the surface. Their sophisticated brains were unable to devise strategies to fight a threat that they had never faced in the tens of millions of years of their existence. Their stupendous bodies weighing tens of tons were of no use against small creatures using super-charged metabolic mechanisms. Their magnificent insulation system, that humans called the "blubber," made whales able to survive in icy waters but it was blubber that sent whales in hyperthermia when they tried to swim away from their human nemesis.

Image from Christensen 2006-  The Y-scale reports the estimated total mass of whales in the Earth's oceans. The X-scale goes from 1800 to 2000. It is a "Seneca Cliff," typical of the overexploitation of economic resources.


It was a war of extermination. In quantitative terms, it was possibly the largest extermination of a non-human species carried out by humans over their existence. And also the fastest one: commercial whaling started in the early 19th century, by the late 20th century it was basically over and the true collapse of the whale populations had lasted no more than a few decades. Afterward, one whale in four was still alive, and the large ones had been wiped out. Maybe 20 Million tons of whales remained out of an initial total of some 120 million. Whales are still hunted and killed, nowadays, although pollution and the keel of boats may be more effective extermination weapons than harpoons used to be (but harpoons are still used, too).

It is done, now, and the ocean is bereft of whales: it is not the same ocean anymore.  Humans are clever monkeys and they are good hunters, but they don't understand the results of their actions. Everything on this planet is connected and it is well known in biology that you can't do just one thing. So, the elimination of the top of the marine trophic chain is going to have unpredictable and probably disastrous effects on the whole ecosphere -- it will also have bad effects on the stability of the Earth's climate.

Some humans understand the danger of what they did, but most of them don't and don't care. They seem to think that exterminating whales is a right given to them by their God (maybe an evil deity going under the sacred name of MSY - maximum sustainable yield). About what the whales may have thought of their disgrace, we'll never know. But, if whales have a God or a Goddess, there may come a time for revenge, and humans will fully deserve whatever befalls them.





h/t Daniel Pauly


12 comments:

  1. The American bison?

    (from wikipedia)
    With a population in excess of 60 million in the late 18th century, the species was down to 541 animals by 1889. Recovery efforts expanded in the mid-20th century, with a resurgence to roughly 31,000[5] animals today, largely restricted to a few national parks and reserves.

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    1. Yes.... another example, but let's see. A bison my weigh 800 kg. Multiplied by 60 million, it makes about 50 million tons of biomass. Large, but smaller than that of whales. Same order of magnitude, though.

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    2. But we will never know how many mammoths humans exterminated during the Pleistocene

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    3. Not so much, too resource intensive to get and a lot of food just for one catch. Humans doesn't need that much to live, i suppose something like 20 mammoths yearly for a 15-20 people tribe, Mongolian horde was quite unimpressive in food consumption: lived of hunting.

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    4. And don't forget the "charismatic megafauna" (a paleoanthropological term for them) of the New World and Australia, which were probably extinctified by the first humans to occupy those continents. Y'know, the proto-horses, camel variants, giant sloths, etc. of the Americas, that were in the fossil record before Man arrived, but were only in the boneyards afterward.

      The combined mass of things like the giant kangaroos and anteaters as big as VW bugs in pre-contact Australia probably didn't amass to as much as even the buffalo. But if you added up the weight of ALL the poor North American dumb beasts (no, not the people who voted for Trump) that were eliminated by the First Nations, that would have to be at least a strong third placer.

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    5. In case of people that voted for Trump, they are not at all dumb. They noticed absolute negligence by the ruling class and intellectual class (middle class) and absolute lack of inter-class solidarity and voted for the change. How much is Trump honest in his policies is question but at least he showed (in public) some interest. Unfortunately, USA is an example how liberalism and laissez faire destroy solidarity in society. Of course, total social control of everything is not the answer. As always, optimal solution is the solution that avoids extremes.

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  2. How can we expect from humans to respect animal species when they kill each other in millions? No respect for life whatsoever. But beware Nemesis is coming!

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  3. Humans are an evil species. An honest look reveals our ongoing depravity and destruction. We are rapidly destroying the biosphere and 99.9999% of humans do not care. We've exterminated our own species, viciously going after the last few remaining indigenous people and the land they occupy. 99.9999% of the humans on the planet don't care about this either. We are evil beyond words. Watch "Dirty Wars" on Hulu to gain a tiny glimpse of our depravity. ~Survival Acres~

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  4. Interesting can you comment on your thoughts on the Pleistocene Park initiative?

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    1. I didn't know about the Pleistocene Park -- thanks for telling me. It looks like a hugely interesting idea. Will have to look at it in depth!

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  5. The imperatives of survival and biomass increase (by growth & replication) result in maximal utilization of resources up to depletion of both renewable and non-renewable resources in the absence of limiting constraints. Homo (pauci)sapiens with its facility at defeating constraints has been depleting resources including cetaceans on a scale heretofore unimagined.

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  6. the passenger pigeon and tasmanian tiger are two famous rivals to the whales, probably more so as they are totally extinct while most whales survived, although i dont hold up much hope for them when the black gold runs out. but then again, theres the vanished megafauna too. animals that clever humans usually describe as not being present on earth today due to climate change during the ice age. a likely story seeing as they spanned many previous interglacials. what about them. and the other human species. where are they all. earth is an empty planet today as far as large mammals are concerned. birds dont far too well either. i used to have a book describing all the mostly forgotton species humans wiped out on islands. if earths species could claim reperations for their extermination by homo saps, there would be a line of species stretching around the planet. then theres vegetation. nobody thinks about all the plants humans have made extinct. human history has been described as a great war on trees. humans like open savanna landscapes where they can see predators like lions creeping up on them, and have spent most of their time it seems chopping trees down to make the regions they invaded more like the african rift valley. just look at our landscape paintings. open small groups of tidy trees, devoid of life, just how humans like it. not many depict the amazon rainforest, teeming with life. humans are death to life on earth. a malign species from anything other than a human centric position. my eco nazi worldview has been described as inhumane but i feel thats not a bad thing to be. i like to distance myself from the norm. being human is nothing to crow about. and yet, it seems my barbaric, inhamane worldview makes me all too human. there is no escape. arggg.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)