Midway through the 20th century, the population of herring in the Northeast Atlantic (off the coast of Iceland and Norway) declined dramatically, mainly due to overfishing in those waters. In Iceland, this decline led to the near-collapse of the fishing industry. At the time, there was rising conflict between fishermen and killer whale populations that were feeding on herring and reportedly harming fishermen’s nets. The fishermen believed the species posed an extreme threat to their industry, which was Iceland’s primary source of economic growth and prosperity.
In early 1954, the Icelandic government appealed to the United States to help them address the crisis. A few months later, Time Magazine reported that the U.S. Navy had attacked a pod of “savage sea cannibals” off the coast of Iceland. More than 100 killer whales died in the attack.
...One posse of Americans climbed into four small boats and in one morning wiped out a pack of 100 killers...
—Time Magazine, April 1954
A young poet from Kansas who read the Time article, Michael McClure, was moved to respond. A year later, at a poetry reading in San Francisco (later considered to be the birth of the Beat Movement), McClure recited For the Death of 100 Whales before an audience that included Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. In the closing passage, he read:
There are no churches in the waves,
No passages or crossings
From the beasts’ wet shore.
Despite the public outcry, in December of 1956, a Navy-issued newsletter reported on the continuation of these efforts. According to the article, ridding Icelandic waters of the “deadliest of ocean creatures” enabled Iceland’s government to fulfill its foreign trade commitments.
Today, the herring stock is managed carefully by the Icelandic government, and there is little competition between populations of killer whales feeding on herring and commercial fishermen whose livelihoods depend on it.