Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Whale of an Exoneration

We found this interesting article about the early presence of the Basques in America (Canada specifically) at Montreal's based The Gazette:

Basques exonerated in decimation of Canadian whale population

Randy Boswell

In an impressive case of CSI-style sleuthing, researchers examining a single, 450-year-old whale bone from Labrador's south coast have exonerated the prime suspect in a whodunit from the dawn of Canadian history.

The DNA profile of a North Atlantic right whale's humerus — collected from the remains of a shipwreck at the historic Red Bay whaling site along the Strait of Belle Isle — shows that Canada's most endangered species was already suffering from a critically small population and a lack of genetic diversity before Basque whalers began harvesting the giant mammals in the 16th century.

The Basques have long been blamed for decimating the right whale population off Canada's coast. But the new research by a team of Canadian and U.S. biologists, published in the latest issue of the journal Conservation Genetics, indicates that right whales were rarely killed by the Spanish-based whalers and that oil-rich bowhead whales were almost exclusively their targeted species.

The first key finding in the centuries-old cold case was that only one right whale bone could be found among 218 specimens collected from historic East Coast whaling sites, meaning the bowhead was clearly the Basques' prime quarry.

Then, led by Trent University researcher Brenna McLeod, the team compared key genetic markers in the ancient right whale bone with those of present-day right whales — and found no significant differences.

The samples revealed a relatively low level of genetic diversity among the whale's North Atlantic population both today and in the past — a result that makes clear the species' problems in Atlantic Canada began long before the Basques arrived in the region in the early 1500s, the team has concluded.

The findings "are not consistent with the suggestion that Basque whaling activities were responsible for what was previously thought to be the largest reduction of the right whale population," the researchers state.

The results also indicate that "the major decline in this species occurred prior to whaling and that the pre-Basque population of right whales in the western North Atlantic was much smaller than has been assumed."

Today, scientists believe there are only about 350 North Atlantic right whales migrating annually between waters south of Nova Scotia — where they spend much of the summer and fall feeding and breeding — and Florida, where calves are typically born in late winter or spring.

The right whale can grow up to 18 metres in length, weigh more than 100 tonnes and live as long as 70 years.

Right whale advocates — including the new study's Canadian co-author, Moira Brown of Boston's New England Aquarium — have successfully lobbied for various fishing and shipping regulations aimed at protecting the highly endangered species.

But the latest findings, which the authors claim have "rewritten the history of the species," appear to point the finger at a post-1400 cooling period known as the Little Ice Age for the historically restricted numbers of North Atlantic right whales along Canada's eastern shores.

"Our research suggests that some of the factors (such as low levels of genetic variation) that may be limiting right whale recovery in the western North Atlantic have been present for far longer than we had thought," McLeod told Canwest News Service on Friday.

She added that the more scientists can learn about the right whale's history "the better we can understand how those factors are playing a role in the patterns and process of recovery in the species today."

The researchers note that while bowhead whales were the key Canadian target for Basque whalers, historic harvests of right whales throughout the broader North Atlantic world have decimated some populations.

In fact, the animal was named the "right" whale to target for easy hunting because it swims slowly and near the surface, typically stays close to the coast and conveniently floats to the top when harpooned.

In the decades following the New World discoveries of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot, the expert shipbuilders, sailors, fishermen and whalers from the Basque country bordering modern-day France and Spain had begun making transatlantic voyages to exploit coastal Canada's whale populations.

Lamp oil rendered from whales killed in the Strait of Belle Isle became the key commodity for the Basque entrepreneurs, who developed shoreline "factories" that produced thousands of barrels of oil and organized regular shipping schedules between Canada and Europe to deliver the product.

Although the presence of Basque whalers in 16th-century Canada was long known to historians, it wasn't until federal archivist Selma Barkham presented fresh evidence at an Ottawa archeological conference in 1977 that plans were made to search for physical traces of Basque activities in modern Labrador.

In 1978, a Parks Canada-led team of researchers discovered the sunken remains of a 1560s-era, three-masted whaling vessel.

Other major finds followed the discovery of the 20-metre San Juan, including three other "galleon"-class transport ships and a well-preserved "chalupa" rowboat used by whale-hunting crews in their deadly chase.

Land-based excavations yielded burial sites, clothing and countless other relics, including hundreds of whale bones.

There just a couple of things we would like to point out; the Basques were fishing off the coast of what one day would be known as Canada long before Columbus and Cabot stumbled upon America. And there is no reason to call them Spaniards, in the early 1500 (the estimated date given to us by the author) the Basque kingdom of Navarre was still an independent and sovereign political entity. The Spaniards began the final assault until 1512 and the Basques were still fighting all the way to 1524. Castile and Aragon managed to get control of the Basque homeland to the south of the Pyrenees, to the north, Donibane Garazi became the kingdom's capital city for many more decades.

The interesting part is, how come the Native Americans living close to the Basque fisheries did not suffer any European disease epidemics like their neighbors to the south?

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for posting this.

    "The interesting part is, how come the Native Americans living close to the Basque fisheries did not suffer any European disease epidemics like their neighbors to the south?"

    AFAIK there was very little contact, and certainly not the brutal exploitation that the natives were subjected to in the South. After all, Basque and Breton fishermen (mostly interested in cod, btw) never settled the area as such but just camped seasonally to exploit the fisheries.