Historical catches of humpback whales in the North Atlantic Ocean: an overview of sources

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Randall R. Reeves
Tim D. Smith


Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been taken in the North Atlantic since the 1600s in a variety of fisheries operating from the Arctic to the tropics. The relative importance of the humpback whale in these fisheries has varied. In some it was the main target species, while in others it was a minor component of the catch, with other large rorquals or sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) ranking ahead of it. There was an overall trend towards large catches of humpback whales, especially in tropical breeding areas, by non-mechanised fisheries during the mid to late 19th century; as these fisheries declined and modern whaling began in higher latitudes, large numbers were taken on the feeding grounds. Catches generally declined in the mid to late 20th century, with many fisheries stopping or scaling down their operations. Information describing the humpback fisheries is published in a wide variety of sources, and approximate locations and periods of operation are reasonably well known for most of the relevant fisheries. In addition, catch and production data are available in commercial records, newspapers and whaling manuscripts (e.g. voyage logbooks). This paper summarises the data sources and defines thirteen ‘fisheries’, based mainly on the whaling methods employed, and 20 ‘sub-fisheries’, based mainly on the spatial distribution of the whaling operations. Catch levels are summarised, often crudely, and gaps in the catch history are identified. Where possible, suggestions are made for filling these gaps.

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