History of Whaling in British Columbia

While not a current threat in Canadian waters, the repercussions of historical whaling are still seen in many threatened cetacean populations to this day.

Although the sustainable hunting of whales occurred in indigenous communities for thousands of years, the commercialization of whaling by Europeans in the 1800’s started the precipitous decline of many whale populations1. Driven by the demand for oil that could be rendered from the whale carcasses into soap and lard, pre-industrial whaling occurred in the Strait of Georgia and Queen Charlotte Strait between 1866 and 1875, using sailing ships and hand-thrown harpoons1. Grey whales and North Pacific right whales were the primary targets of these European whaling ships, and by the end of the 19th century these two species had already been depleted to the point where they were no longer commercially viable1. Several small fisheries for humpback whales also developed in the Strait of Georgia in the 1860s, but these efforts ended in 1870 with fewer than 100 humpbacks being harvested2.

At the turn of the century, the innovations of steam-powered ships, the development of explosive harpoons, and the invention of new rendering techniques revolutionized the industry and led to the first and second modern era of whaling3. By 1967, when a world-wide moratorium on whaling was finally instituted by the International Whaling Commission, at least 24,862 whales were removed from B.C. waters4.

Data Source: Nichol, L.M. et. al. 2002. British Columbia Commercial Whaling Catch Data 1908 to 1967: A Detailed Description of the B.C. Historical Whaling Database. Can. Tech. Rep. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 2371: vi +77 p.

The First Modern Era (1905-1943)1,3
1870 Sven Voyn develops the Grenade Tip Harpoon
  Sven Voyn invents a harpoon with a grenade tip, which kills the whale while hooks remain embedded in the carcass, allowing for swift retrieval. This new technology revolutionizes the whaling industry, removing much of the danger associated with whaling and allowing for the swift capture of the larger, faster rorqual whales.
1900 New reduction techniques are invented and steam power ships are utilized
New processing techniques allow for the entire whale to be processed, not just the blubber. Steam power ships are able to outpace faster whales-blue, fin, and minke whales become targets of the burgeoning whale industry
1905 The Pacific Whaling Company (PWC) is established
Captains Sprott Balcom and William Grant form the PWC in Victoria, incorporating new technologies.
1905 Sechart Whaling Station opens in Barkley Sound
Whaling efforts target a year-round population of humpback whales.
1907 Whaling stations are opened in Kyuquot Sound and Page’s Lagoon
Whaling efforts at Page’s Lagoon target humpbacks that winter in the Strait of Georgia
1910- Rose Harbour Station and Naden Harbour Stations open in Haida Gwaii
1911   Spurred by the success of the Sechart and Kyuquot Stations, the PWC acquires permission to build two more whaling stations in Haida Gwaii
1912 The refinement of the hydrogenation process removes odour from whale oil, and demand increases
1915 Consolidate Whaling Corporations Ltd. formed
A marked decline in whale catches forces the Pacific Whaling Company into receivership, and whaling tycoon William P. Schupp purchases the company, forming the Consolidate Whaling Corporations Ltd., which includes stations in Washington and Alaska.
1918 The Sechart Station closes its doors
Whale stocks decline and markets begin to fluctuate; whaling is becoming a less profitable and more tenuous endeavor.
1919 Spotting planes are introduced at Haida Gwaii Stations
Aerial reconnaissance improves the efficiency of whale hunts.
1921 Naden Harbour, Rose Harbour, and Kyuquot Stations close
Due to over-saturation of whale oil in the world’s market and the early 1920’s recession, three whaling stations temporarily close their doors.
1922 Naden Harbour, Rose Harbour, and Kyuquot Stations are able to re-open
1925 Kyuoquot station closes its doors permanently
1925 The Stern Slipway is invented
The invention of the Stern Slipway allows whalers to process whale carcasses while out at sea, improving efficiency by eliminating the need to return to land-based processing stations, and allowing them to continue whaling on the high seas without reporting to any regulatory bodies.
1931 The First International Whaling Convention is signed
The first International Whaling Convention is signed at the League of Nations, and requires all whaling nations to provide standardized catch data.
1931 The International Whaling Commission grants full protection to the right whale
A moratorium on the hunting of right whales is passed. The hunting of lactating mothers, immature whales and calves is also banned.
1937 The International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling imposes stricter rules on whaling operations
Protection for depleted species is implemented, including grey whales.
1939 The start of World War II temporarily ceases whaling operations
Whaling operations are postponed with the outbreak of World War II.   Civilians are banned from using marine radios, and Japanese workers at processing plants are sent to wartime internment camps.
1941 Naden Harbour Station closes permanently
1943 Rose Harbour Station closes permanently
1946 The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is established
The IWC is responsible for protecting whale stocks by designating protected areas and temporary closures, limiting total allowable catch, and defining standards of measurement. Immature sei whales are also granted protection.
Second Modern Era (1948-1967)1,3
1948 The Western Whaling Company opens a whaling station in Coal Harbour
Whaling resumes in BC with the opening of a new station in Coal Harbour, in Quatsino Sound on Northern Vancouver Island.
1950 The development of radar improves positional accuracy and further increases the efficiency of whale hunts
1956 Gordon Pike is hired as a whaling biologist at the Coal Harbour Station
Pike records basic catch statistics and publishes numerous important studies.
1965 Blue whales and humpback whales are granted protection in the North Pacific
1967 Coal Harbour Station closes, ending commercial whaling operations in BC

Japanese and Soviet whalers continue to hunt whales in B.C.’s offshore waters, targeting sperm, sei, fin, and North Pacific right whales.

1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act is passed
The MMPA prohibits the take of marine mammals in US waters and by US citizens on the high seas, and the importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the US.
1982 The International Whaling Commission passes a worldwide moratorium on whaling
The IWC decides to pause commercial whaling on all whale species and populations from the 1985 season onwards.

The Lasting Effects of Whaling in B.C.

Commercial whaling depleted most cetacean populations, and only a few of these populations have been able to make a substantial recovery.

Baleen Whales

The North Pacific right whale (named because it was the “right” whale for whaling ships to target due to its slow movements, surfacing behaviour and tendency for the carcasses to float) is one such example of a population that has been decimated by whaling. By the turn of the century, an estimated 26,500-37,000 North Pacific right whales were killed by whaling boats, and the population was so depleted that it was no longer commercially viable2.  Although legal protection was granted to the North Pacific right whale in 19315, the population is still listed as critically endangered.  The population size of Northern Pacific Right Whales in the eastern north Pacific is unknown, but a population of approximately 30 individuals is estimated from surveys in the eastern Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands5. In 2013, two North Pacific right whales were spotted during surveys in Haida Gwaii and near Swiftsure Bank.  These were the first confirmed sightings of this species since 19515.

Because of their large size, blue whales were hunted ruthlessly throughout the 20th century5.  In the north Pacific, approximately 8,000 blue whales were taken by whalers1.  Blue whales were finally granted protection in 1965, but populations remain extremely depleted throughout their historical range1.  Recent photo-identification studies have estimated that there are approximately 3,000 blue whales in the northeastern Pacific5.

Fin whales were also heavily targeted during whaling operations due to their large size; it is estimated that over 4,000 fin whales were removed by whalers from B.C. waters alone6.  The pre-whaling population of fin whales in the North Pacific was estimated to be 42,000-45,000, and was reduced to approximately 8,000-16,000 individuals by 19751.  Presently, there are no reliable estimates of fin whales in the North Pacific due to patchy survey coverage5, but Fisheries and Oceans Canada has continued to catalogue fin whales during field surveys, and numbers appear to be increasing1.  Both blue and fin whales are listed as Endangered by COSEWIC in Canada5.

Sei whales were heavily targeted by commercial whaling late in the whaling era, when blue and fin whale populations had been depleted5.  Prior to whaling, there were an estimated 42,000 sei whales in the North Pacific.  By the time a moratorium on whaling was passed, only 9,000 individuals remained1.  Despite being one of the most common species encountered by whalers in B.C. waters, sei whales appear to be scarce in this region today; no whales were seen during scientific surveys from 2002 to 2008, only 4 individuals were seen offshore in 2012, and no sightings have been reported to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network6.  Presently, approximately 100 sei whales are taken annually in the North Pacific by Japan for “scientific” purposes1.  Sei whales are listed as endangered by COSEWIC in Canada6.

In contrast, some grey whale populations in the Eastern North Pacific have recovered well from whaling1.  Prior to the start of commercial whaling, there were estimated to be around 12,000-24,000 grey whales.  Commercial whaling reduced this number to only a few thousand individuals by 19001.  After grey whales were granted legal protection in 1937, the population began to slowly recover and is now estimated to be around 20,000 animals1.  The population that utilizes Alaskan waters in the summer months has recently been assessed as Not At Risk by COSEWIC, but it was recommended that two other small populations-one that travels through B.C. waters to summer in Russia, and one that forages off the west coast of Vancouver Island-should be listed as Endangered7.  Grey whales are currently listed as Special Concern in Canada8.

Humpback whales have made a remarkable recovery from the devastating effects of whaling. Because of their coastal distribution and slow swimming speed, humpback whales were easy targets for commercial whalers1.  By the time the last humpback whaling station closed its doors in 1943, over 4,800 catches were recorded-more than any other species in British Columbia1.  Although the population was seriously depleted by the 1950’s, whalers continued to take humpbacks when they were encountered1. By the time whaling was finally banned in 1966, only 1,200-1,400 individuals remained in the North Pacific9.  An international study of humpback whales conducted from 2004-2006 called SPLASH, estimated that this population has rebounded to at least 18,302 whales10.  Due to the recent abundance estimates and increasing trend, humpback whales were down-listed from Threatened to Special concern by COSEWIC in 20119.

Toothed Whales

Sperm whales were hunted since the early 18th century in most of the world’s oceans due to the demand for whale oil derived from its spermaceti organ1.  By the time the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium in 1988, more than 300,000 sperm whales were taken from the North Pacific4.  Currently, there are approximately 80,000 sperm whales in the North Pacific, and they are listed as Not at Risk in Canadian waters by COSEWIC1.  At present, approximately 10 sperm whales are taken annually by Japan’s scientific whaling program1.

Killer whales were not targeted by the commercial whaling industry in Canada, but a live-capture fishery, operating from 1962 to1973, removed 263 whales from the waters of British Columbia and Washington for display in aquaria11.  Most captured whales were southern residents, and this live-capture fishery further depleted this population, likely already reduced from years of intentional shootings1.  As people learned more about these animals, public opinion against live capture grew, and operations ceased in 19771. In BC, transient and offshore killer whales are listed as threatened, and northern and southern residents are listed as threatened and endangered, respectively12.  Killer whales are still hunted in small numbers in Japan, Greenland, Indonesia, and some Caribbean Islands1.

Present Day Whaling

Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling and Special Permit Whaling still continues in other parts of the world.

In some parts of the world, whale products continue to play an integral role in the life of indigenous communities, and whales are still hunted to maintain native culture and provide an important source of nutrition. This whaling, called “aboriginal subsistence whaling”, is recognized by the International Whaling Commission as being different from commercial whaling in that it does not seek to maximize catches or profits13. Aboriginal subsistence whaling is not subject to the moratorium; instead, the national government must provide a Needs Statement which details the requirements of their indigenous people, and in turn the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Community provides advice on the sustainability of proposed hunts and safe catch limits13. At present, Greenland, Chukotka, Alaska, and Bequia all participate in aboriginal subsistence whaling13.

Special Permit Whaling, also known as “scientific whaling”, still continues today, and is the subject of much contention. In The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the legal agreement which establishes the International Whaling Commission, Article VIII states that countries are permitted to kill whales for scientific research purposes14.  It is the responsibility of the individual governments to issue permits and regulate these catches, but all permits must be reported to the IWC and research must be presented annually.  The government of Japan has undertaken Special Permit whaling since 1987 throughout the North Pacific and Antarctic, and has taken approximately 8,300 whales for scientific purposes15.  In November of 2016, Japan brought forth a proposal for a new special whaling program in the North Pacific, called NEWREP-NP.  Japan’s new proposal increases the allowable catch of sei whales and minke whales to 140 and 174, respectively14.  Despite the assessment by the IWC’s expert panel that Japan’s lethal sampling of whales is unjustified, Japan issued permits for the NEWREP-NP in June of 201714.  Japan’s take of sei whales is in direct contravention of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty which protects threatened wildlife from exploitation14.


  1. Ford, J.K.B. (2014). Marine Mammals of British Columbia. Royal BC Museum, Canada.
  2. Nichol, L.M.m Gregr, E.J. Flinn, R., Ford, J.K.B., Gurney, R., Michaluk, L.,and Peacock, A. (2002). British Columbia commercial whaling catch data 1908 to 1967: a detailed description of the BC historical whaling database. Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 2396.
  3. Keen, E. (2014) B.C. whaling (back when they were just big fish). Bangarang Backgrounder, https://rvbangarang.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/bcwhaling.pdf
  4. Gregr, E.J., Nichol, L., Ford, J.K.B., Ellis, G., and Trites, A.W. (2000). Migration and population structure of northeastern Pacific whales off coastal British Columbia: an analysis of commercial whaling records from 1908-1967. Marine Mammal Science 16 (4).
  5. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2017. Action Plan for Blue, Fin, Sei and North Pacific Right Whales (Balaenoptera musculus, B. physalus, B. borealis, and Eubalaena japonica) in Canadian Pacific Waters. Species at Risk Act Action Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. iv + 28 pp.
  6. COSEWIC (2003). COSEWIC assessment and status report on the sei whale Balaenoptera borealis in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottava vii + 27pp.
  7. Cooke, J.G., Weller, D.W., Bradford, A.L., Sychenko, O., Burdin, A.M., Lang, A.R., & Bronwell R.L. (2017). Population assessment update for Sakhalin gray whales, with reference to stock identity. Western Grey Whale Advistory Panel, International Whaling Commission. 9pp.
  8. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (2010). Management Plan for the Grey Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) in Canada [Final]. Species at Risk Act Management Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa.
  9. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (2013). Recovery strategy for the north Pacific humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangilae) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. x + 67pp.
  10. Calambokidis, J., Falcone, E.A., Quinn, T.J., Burdin, A.M., Clapham, P.J., Ford, J.K.B., Gabriele, C.M., LeDuc, R., Mattila, D., Rojas-Brancho, L., Straley, J.M., Taylor, B.L., Urban, J., Weller, R.D., Witteveen, B.H., Yamaguchi, M., Bendlin, A., Camacho, D., Flynn, K., Havron, A., Huggins, J., Maloney, N., Barlow, J., and Wade, P.R. (2008). SPLASH: Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales in the North Pacific. Final report for Contract AB133F-03-RP-00078. U.S. Department of Commerce. 57 pp.
  11. Bigg, M.A. and Wolman, A.A. (1975). Live-capture killer whale (Orcinus orca) fishery, British Columbia and Washington, 1962-73. Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada 32.
  12. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (2017). Action plan for the northern and southern resident killer whale (Orcinus orca) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Action Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. v + 33p.
  13. International Whaling Commission: Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling https://iwc.int/aboriginal
  14. International Whaling Commision: Special Permit Whaling https://iwc.int/permitsje
  15. Gales, N.J., Kasuya, T., Clapham, P.J., and Brownwell Jr., R.L. Japan’s whaling plan under scrutiny. Nature 435 (16).