The business of dealing death

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Bodoklecksel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As gray whale populations slowly rebounded in the early twentieth century, they attracted the attention of commercial whaling companies. With injections of capital and technology, these ventures brought a new, deadlier form of industrial whaling.

A.D. Kean, a Vancouver filmmaker, documented the whaling industry off British Columbia's coast between 1916 and 1919 in his silent film, "Whaling: British Columbia's Least Known and Most Romantic Industry." On display are the steam-powered catcher boats, bow-mounted harpoon cannons, and shore-based processing plants that characterized the industry in the early twentieth century. While whalers hunting from British Columbian shore stations did not target gray whales, Norwegian and U.S. whalers used similar technology to decimate gray whale populations off the coast of Baja California in the first decades of the 1900s. A.D. Kean, 1919, Public domain, footage courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Norwegian and US factory ships operated off the west coast of North America between 1913 and 1937, mostly hunting large rorquals - but they were not averse to taking grays when the opportunity arose. Working from immense floating factory ships, Norwegian whalers struck the Baja lagoons repeatedly, devastating a population again teetering on the brink of extinction.

For their part, US whalers from the California Sea Products Company killed dozens of migrating gray whales as they passed the company's seasonal anchorage at San Clemente Island, and hunted them off Point Dume on the California coast.

A black-and-white image of the Aleut, a whaling factory ship operated by the Soviet Union

The fleet of the Soviet factory ship Aleut, a converted U.S. cargo vessel, hunted gray whales in the western Bering Sea from 1933 to 1945. The Aleut fleet was later replaced by a purpose-built whaler, the Zvezdny. Image by Alfred Berzin.

Soviet whalers sailing from Vladivostok in the Russian Far East targeted feeding gray whales on their summering grounds in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas, rendering them into mink feed and industrial fertilizer. Soviet whalers also hunted gray whales on behalf of the Indigenous Chukchi and Yu'pik of Chukotka and eastern Siberia, for whom gray whales constituted an important and reliable food source during freezing Arctic winters.

The siege slowed in 1937-1938, when the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling, banned signatory states - including South Africa, the United States, Argentina, Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway, the United States, Canada and Mexico, but not the Soviet Union - from hunting right and gray whales. In 1946, the newly formed International Whaling Commission issued the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the organization's founding document, which banned the commercial killing of gray whales in Pacific waters.

The stage was set for one of the greatest comeback stories in history.