Are the Basques responsible for the decline of North Atlantic right whales?

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered of the large whales: no more than 350 remain. It is thought that Basque whaling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coast of Labrador in the XVI and XVII centuries is the cause of this decline. Is this true?

To go through the looking glass

The most important whaling station of the Strait of Belle Isle (Gulf of St. Lawrence) was discovered at Red Bay, Labrador, Canada in 1978. Whale bones were discovered in the vicinity of a Basque galleon that sunk in 1565. Researchers from Parks Canada and the Canadian Museum of Nature conducted analyses on the morphology and genetics of 21 humeruses, a bone contained in the pectoral fin.

In short

The morphological analyses suggest that 13 of the 21 humeruses belonged to right whales and the eight others to bowhead whales, another species hunted by the Basque. However, the genetic analyses revealed that, in truth, only one of the 21 humeri belonged to a right whale. This analysis also revealed a low genetic variability; researchers expected to find a higher variability if the whales were more numerous during this period. These results cast doubt on the impact of Basque whaling on the decline of North Atlantic right whales. Instead, they suggest that the decline took place before the arrival of the Basque. In order to verify this hypothesis, genetic analyses will be carried out on a greater number of samples from several different sites along the shores of southeastern Labrador and the lower north shore of Quebec.

Project collaborators

Toolika Rastogi1, Moira W. Brown2, Brenna A. McLeod3, Timothy R. Frasier1, Robert Grenier4, Stephen L. Cumbaa5, Jeya Nadarajah1 et Bradley N. White3.

1. McMaster University (Ontario) 2. New England Aquarium (États-Unis) 3. Trent University (Ontario)) 4 Parks Canada 5 The Canadian Museum of Nature


Sarah Haney (Canadian Whale Institute) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), National Marine Fisheries Service.

Scientific papers

Rastogi, T., M. W. Brown, B. A. McLeod, T. R. Frasier, R. Grenier, S. L. Cumbaa, J. Nadarajah and B. N. White. 2004. Genetic analysis of 16th-century whale bones prompts a revision of the impact of Basque whaling on right and bowhead whales in the western North Atlantic. Canadian Journal of Zoology 82: 1647–1654