Hakai Magazine

This is what most people think of when you talk about whaling, not thousands of walruses, hundreds of deer, and one wild pigeon. Image by Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

The Collateral Damage of Yankee Whaling

New research shows that 100,000 dead whales were just the tip of the iceberg.

Authored by

Text by Colin Schultz
Design by Mark Garrison

Article body copy

It’s easy to underestimate the power and scale of the 19th-century American whaling industry. Today, what remains of large-scale whaling is concentrated in just three countries: Norway, Iceland, and Japan. But in the mid-1800s, America dominated.

At its peak in 1846, American whalers controlled 735 of the world’s 900 whaling ships. In the United States, whaling was the fifth largest industry, employing some 70,000 people. And American whaling’s de facto capital, New Bedford, Massachusetts, was the richest city in the country per capita.

Such a sizable fleet took a devastating toll on whale populations. But as new research led by Columbia University ecologist Joshua Drew shows, American whalers also had a huge effect on a range of other species.

From 1784 to 1928, as many as 2,200 American whaling ships set sail on 11,908 voyages. Some of the logbooks from those journeys have survived to this day. In a study, forthcoming in the journal Ecology and Evolution, Drew and colleagues looked at the books from only a tiny subset of these voyages, yet what they found is still surprising. The work shows that whalers’ ecological toll extended far beyond whales.

infographic showing collateral damage caused by 19th-century Yankee whaling