One of the most important challenges researchers and managers confront in conservation ecology is predicting a population's response to sub-lethal stressors. Such predictions have been particularly elusive when assessing responses of large marine mammals to past anthropogenic pressures. Recently developed techniques involving baleen whale earplugs combine age estimates with cortisol measurements to assess spatial and temporal stress/stressor relationships. Here we show a relationship between baseline-corrected cortisol levels and corresponding whaling counts of fin, humpback, and blue whales in the Northern Hemisphere spanning the 20th century. We also model the impact of alternative demographic and environmental factors and determine that increased anomalies of sea surface temperature over a 46-year mean (1970-2016) were positively associated with cortisol levels. While industrial whaling can deplete populations by direct harvest, our data underscore a widespread stress response in baleen whales that is peripheral to whaling activities or associated with other anthropogenic change.