History of whaling in Australia
Whaling in Australia commenced in the late 18th century. There is no known history of Aboriginal communities in Australia having hunted whales.
Early whaling in Australia was carried out using harpoons from small boats and the whales were towed behind the boats back to whaling stations on shore. Whale products were used for a number of things. Whale blubber was melted down to be used as oil for lamp fuel, lubricants and candles and as a base for perfumes and soaps. Baleen (whalebone) was used for items such as corsets, whips and umbrellas.
Whaling and the export of whale by-products such as whale oil became one of Australia's first primary industries. One of the first commercial whaling operations in Australia was the Davidson Whaling Station located just outside of Eden on the south-east coast of New South Wales. Numerous other coastal whaling stations were established around Australia in the late 1820s to 1830s.
The development of harpoon guns, explosive harpoons and steam-driven whaling boats in the late 19th century made large-scale commercial whaling so efficient that many whale species were over-exploited and came very near to extinction. Over-exploitation eventually led to the demise of the whaling industry in Australia. As whale numbers plummeted in the 20th Century, laws were passed to protect a number of the species.
Demise of the whaling industry
Whale protection for certain whale species commenced in the 1930s after the effects of whaling on whale populations became more apparent. The southern right whale was protected in Australian waters in 1935, after more than 26 000 individuals had been taken in Australian and New Zealand waters between 1822 and 1930.
Whaling stations in Australia and New Zealand killed over 40 000 humpback whales on their migrations from the Antarctic Ocean to the warm tropical waters north of Australia. Whaling ceased on humpback whales in 1963, and they were protected worldwide in 1965 after recognition of a dramatic global decline in numbers.
Commercial whaling continued in Australian waters on sperm whales with 16 000 taken from 1952 until the end of commercial whaling in 1978.
Commercial whaling in Australia ceased in 1978 with the closure of Australia's last whaling station, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, in Western Australia. In 1979 Australia adopted an anti-whaling policy, permanently ending whaling in Australian waters. At the same time Australia started to focus heavily on working towards the international protection and conservation of whales.
Since the International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling came into place in 1986, many whale populations have begun to recover. The southern right whale, which was nearly extinct by the middle of the nineteenth century, is now showing signs of recovery. In recent years, growing numbers appear annually off the southern Australian coast, where breeding and socialising occurs before they head south to feed in the nutrient-rich sub-Antarctic waters.
Unfortunately, while some populations and species are showing signs of recovery, the future of others remains uncertain. Despite decades of protection, blue whales remain at about 2% of pre-whaling levels although their numbers appear to be slowly increasing at last.
Even within species, recovery has been patchy. Overall the humpback whale has moved from 'vulnerable' to 'least concern' on the IUCN Red List, a list of the world's species facing the highest risk of extinction. This means that overall humpback whales are less likely to become extinct. But two sub populations, including one in the South Pacific, remain endangered and of high concern.