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Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)
Opening the Door: The Hunt for Oil

In 2008, the US Minerals Management Service conducted a lease sale for oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska, a vast area of the sea encompassing some 53,125 square miles.  Exploring this area for its oil reserves is not without significant technical challenge and  controversy, but the demand for oil and gas in the US and around the world is undeniable... [Full Story]

The Shenandoah towing prisoners from three burning whaling vessels in Behring's Straits, June 25, 1865. <i>(Alaska State Library - Historical Collections)
The First Blow is Struck:  The Saga of the CSS Shenandoah

The Civil War would seem to be an unlikely topic in a discussion of the remote Western Arctic, but events of 1865 in the Bering Sea and Strait had a profound effect on the whaling industry in this region and in New England.  Early in the War, the Confederacy embarked on a plan to commission twelve “commerce raiders”, ships that had as their primary mission to undermine the economy of the North by seizing and destroying vessels owned by Northern companies, particularly whaling ships. [Full Story]

The Ship persuing walrus
Decimation of the Walrus Populations of the Western Arctic

In areas where resource exploitation is intense, usually related to a wild capture fishery, it does not take very long to deplete the population of a target species.  The fishing vessels are all outfitted for fishing and want to continue to reap the profits, and satisfy the demand, for the product they are targeting, but as the cost to capture, called the “catch per unit effort”, rises to a point where the profit from fishing on that target species approaches the cost of fishing, it becomes difficult to economically justify continuing that fishery. [Full Story]

The Ship persuing walrus
The Disaster of 1871: The Ice Takes its Toll

In August 1871, 32 whaling ships from Hawaii, New England, and California had come to the icy waters of the Arctic in the pursuit of the bowhead whale. The pack ice being close to shore that year left little room for maneuvering of the fleet but whales were relatively plentiful, and while there are whales to catch, the whaleboats go off to hunt. The whaling captains counted on a wind shift from the east to drive the pack out to sea as it had always done in years past. [Full Story]

The Ship persuing walrus
History Repeats Itself: The Disaster of 1876

The old saying "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" is undeniably applicable to this second disaster to befall the whaling industry in the 1870s. Despite the growing marginal profits of whaling in the Western Arctic, the industry had the vessels fitted out for the work, the decision to keep whaling was as much due to interta on the part of the ship owners as the potential for profit. There were only 20 vessels in the fleet in 1876, largely as the result of the losses in previous years, particularly in 1871, and from the lack or reinvestment in new whaling ships by the owners. [Full Story]

The Ship persuing walrus
The Final, and Likely Fatal Blow: the Events of 1897-1898

As whaling in the Western Arctic was approaching the turn of the century, the technology had changed, the ships looked different - the era of steam whaling had arrived -- gone were the stalwart crews of whalemen - replaced thieves, beggars and those unlucky enough to be pressed into service - and the captains were not much better. Whale oil, as a commodity, was at a low ebb in value. Only whalebone was sustaining its value, but this too would crash within a decade. Despite all this economic (and otherwise) decline, whaling continued. [Full Story]