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Friday, 23 August 2013

Did the oil industry save the whale?

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for December 15, 1902 carried an article about whaling and its decline. One of the quotes from it states:

And here lies the prime cause for the decline of the whaling of the whaling business; the gradual decrease of demand for whale oil as other oils came into more general use, and also as whales became more scarce. … The whalers killed "the goose that laid the golden egg" when they pursued the whale with 800 ships until he retreated for safety beyond the reach of their harpoons.”

Oil wells have been drilled since at least 347 AD in China. These wells had depths of up to approximately 240 m (800 feet) and were drilled using bamboo poles. The ancient records of China and Japan are said to contain many allusions to the use of natural gas for lighting and heating.

However, the first ‘commercial’ well is generally considered to have been drilled in 1859 in the USA by Edwin Drake. Within ten years production had risen from 2000 barrels to 4.12 million barrels, and by 1906 126.5 million barrels had been produced.

The new oil filled almost all of the uses once filled by whale oil.

It may be said that the rapid development of the oil industry in the USA between 1859 and 1806 saved the whale just in time. Without the new source of oil, the whale would have surely been hunted to extinction, rather than the small current stocks that are now recovering fairly robustly.

It is well known that overexploitation by the whaling industry led to serious declines in many of the world’s populations of whales, although thankfully no species was brought to extinction and many are now in the process of recovering, although not all.”

The IWC makes the cause of the whales' decline explicit, and goes on to say that:

In fact only two species of large whales can be considered in danger of extinction, the North Pacific right whale and the North Atlantic right whale, both of which were severely depleted by pre-20th century whaling.”

The irony is clear. When it comes to saving the whale the prize goes to the early American oil industry, and we should recognise it publicly.

The remaining whales, of course, are under continuing pressure from the modern world and Save the Whales the IWC and other organisations continue to do a sterling job.

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