Historical Data on the Impact of 16th-Century Basque Whaling on Right and Bowhead Whales in the Western North Atlantic

  • B. Loewen


The Basques pioneered whaling in Newfoundland waters around 1530 and remained the only group to exploit western Atlantic whale populations until 1600, hunting from coastal stations in southern Labrador and eastern Québec. In light of recent research on archaeological whale remains from Red Bay in Labrador, this paper presents historical data relevant to the numbers of whales that were hunted by 16th-century Basques. These data led to an estimate of 13,000 whales killed, a count lower than those provided by other analyses. Whaling peaked in the 1570s, then declined sharply around 1579 to low levels for the remainder of the century. The Basques primarily targeted the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus). As whaling intensified in the 1560s, the Basques noticed a second bowhead migration in mid-November and extended their hunting season until freeze-up. During this time, the port of Red Bay increased in importance until about half of all Basque whaling ships were based there in the 1570s. Basque whalers preferred stations in the Strait of Belle Isle for economic and security reasons but also because of the late fall bowhead whale hunt.
Feature Article/Compte-rendu