Over the last century, people killed more than 80 whales on average each day of every year.
Humans slaughtered nearly 3 million whales in the 20th century, making the killing the largest cull of any type of animal ever in history, in terms of biomass, according to a new study.
The paper used historical catch data to estimate that between 1900 and 1999, 2.9 million whales were killed by the whaling industry: more than 2 million in the Southern Hemisphere and most of the rest in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic.
Marking the first time researchers have estimated the total number of whales killed since full-scale modern industrial whaling began around 1900, the estimate was "astonishing," lead researcher Robert Rocha told Nature.
Whalers bearing harpoons and huge factory vessels stripped the ocean of its behemoths in the 20th century, pushing some whales nearly to extinction. Whales were valued mainly for their oil, blubber and later, their meat. The U.S. was a major culprit in the industry, and at one point dominated the world's whaling market: in 1846, 735 of the world's 900 whaling ships were American.
A global moratorium was imposed on whaling in 1986, allowing many whale populations to recover. Some populations are still devastated, as the paper's authors point out: The population of Southern Ocean blue whales is still estimated to be at less than 1 percent of numbers before industrial whaling.