Being much faster than any other whale species, fin whales could not be hunted to any great extent until fast catcher boats (steam ships) and explosive harpoons had been developed as part of commercial whaling in the late 1800s in Norway. These inventions made catches possible and fin whales become heavily exploited in the modern whaling era.
Fin whale catches increased throughout the early 1900s, and reached over 30,000 per year worldwide in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982). Although the vast majority of these was taken in the Southern Hemisphere, fin whales were also considerably depleted in the north. Whaling was banned in Norway in 1904, mainly because of a belief by fishermen that whales herded herring to the coast, thereby making them accessible to them. By this time, however, the stocks off northern Norway were severely depleted (Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982).
Norwegian companies established whaling stations in many areas of the North Atlantic after depleting whale stocks off their own coast (Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982). Whaling stations were established in Iceland, Spitsbergen, the Faroes, the Shetland Islands, the Hebrides and Ireland as well as in Newfoundland. In all areas, the same scenario was repeated: a whaling station was established in a new area, followed by good catches and rapid expansion, followed by declining catches until whaling became unprofitable. In some areas this process took as little as 10 years. In most areas, the initial phase of whaling was over by 1920 (Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982).
Harvesting was especially heavy around Iceland, and led to a noticeable decline in catch rates for fin whales there between 1901 and 1915. (IWC 1989, NAMMCO 2000a,b). The situation was serious enough that it led to Iceland imposing a moratorium on whaling in Icelandic waters in 1915, the first whaling moratorium ever.
When whaling resumed in 1935 west of Iceland the stock appeared to have recovered there, possibly through both natural population growth and immigration from other areas (NAMMCO 2000a,b). Fin whaling resumed in most areas after World War 2. In Norway and the Faroes, whaling continued until 1971 and 1984 respectively, when declining or variable catches and low prices made the operations unprofitable.
In 1986, the IWC instituted a temporary moratorium on commercial whaling, which was then discontinued in Spain and Iceland. Iceland, however, continued to catch fin whales in the period 1986-1989, as a part of a scientific research programme.
Catch of fin whales off Iceland, 1978. Photo: T. Haug, Institute of Marine Research, Norway.
Greenland continued hunting fin whales from West Greenland, under an IWC “subsistence whaling” quota of 19 fin whales per year (total quota, i.e., including landed and struck-and-lost whales). Recent harvests have been lower than the quota level (Table and figure below).
In 2006, Iceland (not bound by the IWC moratorium since 2002) resumed hunting fin whales, with a catch of 7 in 2006, 125 in 2009 and 148 in 2010 (Table and figure below). No other country in the world presently has a directed harvest of fin whales, except for Japan which started a scientific catch in 2005.
Catches of fin whales in the North Atlantic in the last 30 years (Best catch series, IWC 2009b). *2014 catches do not include Greenlandic statistics, which will be available in late 2016.
Fin whale catches in the North Atlantic, by Norway, the Faroes, Shetland, Hebrides, Ireland, (=SHEBIRE), Greenland and Iceland, 1895 to 2011. Total catch in this period was 50,008 fin whales. Compiled from Bloch and Allison (2007), Sigurjonsson and Gunnlaugsson (2007) and NAMMCO Annual Reports.