The arrival of the whaleship Charles W. Morgan in Martha’s Vineyard gives us a great opportunity to reflect on whaling’s history as well as assess some of the messages that can be applied to modern times.

At one point in time, many of the world’s most desirable products came from whales. Clean-burning candles and fine oil for machine lubrication were made from the wax, called spermaceti, located in the large head cavity of the sperm whale. Whalebone, actually flexible baleen from the mouths of filter-feeding baleen whales, was used to manufacture skirt hoops and umbrella ribs. Teeth were used to make the artistic creations called scrimshaw.

Martha’s Vineyard was an important player in America’s whaling history. While the adjacent ports of New Bedford and Nantucket provided many of the ships for these voyages, it was Martha’s Vineyard that many times provided the captains and crews that supported whaling. Also, with Nantucket’s harbor too shallow to accommodate large whaling vessels loaded down with barrels of whale oil, these ships offloaded here, and Edgartown greatly benefited from this. The wealth generated from whaling financed some of the large mansions present on the Island.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) sees recent concentrations of whales in Nantucket Sound as a sign that whales are again feeling comfortable enough to come back year after year.

The end of whaling came about due to several ecological and societal factors. One reason whaleships had to travel to distant areas in the Western Pacific and Gulf of Alaska was that the abundance of whales closer to home ports significantly declined over time. Whales became increasingly hard to find locally for a short, profitable voyage, making it necessary to hunt these species throughout the globe.

At its height in the mid 1800s, whalers killed perhaps 5,000 sperm whales per year ( Dec. 2011). In a six-month period in the 1930s, it was reported that some 3,600 whales were killed and processed. Whaling was increasingly becoming unsustainable, from a biological as well as an economic view, and the discovery of petroleum and the ability to produce kerosene quickly attributed to the demise of whaling.

Now what?

When industrial commercial whaling ended in the early 20th century, the important New England whaling centers had to reinvent themselves in order to survive economically and prosper. All ports seemed to have taken slightly different paths from post-whaling to modern day.

As happened in other New England whaling ports, Martha’s Vineyard turned to the sea for fishing after whaling had died out. Herring and eel fisheries have always been culturally significant to the Wampanoag tribe. Due to overfishing, habitat decline and the presence of old dams along the East Coast, herring stocks have collapsed, representing an economical and cultural threat.

The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby has been ongoing since 1946 and highlights the increasing importance of charter, recreational and subsistence fishing to the island. The long-term record of fish caught from the derby also provides an excellent barometer of how the size of fish has changed over past decades.

Robert Brock is a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.