Summary Review of Overexploitation and Decline Cycles in the Scottish Arctic Bowhead Whale Fishery, 1750-World War One


  • Chesley W. Sanger



Historically all major global whaling activities share a characteristic feature: “overexploitation-decline” cycles. The Scottish Arctic bowhead whaling industry was no exception in all essential details except one. It was conducted in extremely hazardous ice conditions in which more than half the participating vessels were lost. Despite this, 247 ships from 16 Scottish ports captured some 20,000 bowhead whales at East Greenland, Davis Strait, and Baffin Bay. In total this effort represented more than 160,000 man-trips, the requirement to crew at least 3,400 vessel-voyages. Extent records of these voyages in Scottish sources (mostly newspapers) comprise a comprehensive statistical database enabling the analyzation of different aspects of this historically important maritime activity. This overview employs these data to examine the maelstrom of forces which inhibited owners from practicing sustainable management strategies, leading to near extinction of North Atlantic bowhead stocks and, inevitably, commercial collapse of the industry.

Historiquement, toutes les grandes activités liées à la chasse à la baleine à travers le monde avaient un même point commun, soit les cycles de surexploitation et de déclin. L’industrie écossaise de la chasse à la baleine boréale de l’Arctique n’a pas fait exception au niveau des détails essentiels, sauf sur un point : elle avait cours dans des conditions de glace extrêmement dangereuses dans lesquelles plus de la moitié des navires participants ont été perdus. Malgré cela, 247 navires en provenance de 16 ports écossais ont capturé environ 20 000 baleines boréales à l’est du Groenland, dans le détroit de Davis et dans la baie de Baffin. Cet effort était l’équivalent de plus de 160 000 voyages-hommes, soit les besoins en équipage d’au moins 3 400 voyages en navire. Les mentions existantes de ces voyages dans les sources écossaises (principalement des journaux) constituent une base de données statistiques complète qui permet d’analyser les différents aspects de cette activité maritime d’une grande importance historique. À partir de ces données, le présent aperçu évalue les forces qui ont empêché les propriétaires de mettre en pratique des stratégies de gestion durable, ce qui a donné lieu à la quasi-extinction des stocks de baleines boréales dans l’Atlantique Nord et, inévitablement, à l’effondrement commercial de l’industrie.

Author Biography

Chesley W. Sanger

Chesley Sanger is professor emeritus of historical geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Besides Scottish Arctic Whaling (1750-WWI), he has ongoing interests in the Newfoundland Seal Fishery and Modern Shore-Station Whaling in Newfoundland and Labrador (1896-1972). (Contact:


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A painting of whalers caught in the Arctic ice




How to Cite

Sanger, C. W. (2024). Summary Review of Overexploitation and Decline Cycles in the Scottish Arctic Bowhead Whale Fishery, 1750-World War One . The Northern Mariner Le Marin Du Nord, 33(3-4), 407–434.