The number of boats taking part in Norway’s annual whale hunt is low again this summer, continuing the decline in participation and demand for whale meat that has been seen over the last few years. A proposal by the Fisheries Minister to export whale to Japan drew mixed reactions from the Norwegian industry, while a documentary aired on Sunday night about a young girl’s pride in her family’s whaling traditions flared up new controversy.
A total of 23 whaling ships are participating in this year’s hunt, down from the industry’s 1950s heyday when 350 boats took part. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported the low participation rate over the last few years has meant whalers have only taken 30 to 40 percent of their allowable catch, which this year is 1,286 minke whales.
Norwegian coastal communities have hunted whales for centuries, with sources from the 800s mentioning the practice. The modern industry ramped up with the motorization of the fleet in the 1920s, and despite joining the International Whaling Commission Norway has continued to whale commercially since 1993. Japan and Iceland are the only other countries to do so.
But the golden age of Norwegian whaling has now passed, believed processor Ulf Ellingsen of Ellingsen Seafood in Skrova, Nordland county. His company has processed whale meat since 1947, and said production had dropped significantly.
“I cannot imagine that this will develop into a major industry in Norway,” he told NRK. “It will probably be a niche industry in the Norwegian fishing industry. There is a hunt with long traditions, and it would be a shame if it disappeared. But it must be profitable, also for those who take this meat. If you look at this from a historical perspective, the supply of whale meat is barely a hobby today. Production of whale meat is less profitable for us to focus on, and keep the factory in operation.”
Export to Japan
Ellingsen said the only way to improve profitability would be to build a market with Japan, something that Fisheries Minister Elisabeth Aspaker of the Conservatives is investigating. “We have Japan as a possible export country,” she told NRK. “We must look at whether we can work to promote exports to Japan. Then we must work internationally to increase understanding that the Norwegian whaling industry is sustainable. So that we can find new export markets in the future.”
“With all due respect to the Fisheries Minister, but I cannot find a single fisheries minister who has not said the same,” said Ellingsen. “Without anything having happened in this area. It all depends on how strongly such statements are emphasized. And how much weight Norwegian authorities are willing to use.”
In March this year, the International Court of Justice ruled Japan must stop its whaling activity in the Southern Ocean, because it wasn’t truly being conducted for scientific reasons. Ellingsen said there was strong international opposition to opening a Japanese import market for Norwegian whale meat.
“The Fisheries Minister and the government must work against the USA,” he said. “There are not the resources that requires. If the market had been there, we could easily take the quota. But as long as the meat is unable to be sold and not even the domestic market takes the quota we have, we have a problem.” He said exporting to the EU would also be politically impossible.
Industry will die out
Norway’s commercial whaling fleet was targeted by protestors from environmental groups like Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace in the 1990s. Boats were sabotaged, and whalers reported death threats towards their families. Now the environmental movement expects the whaling industry will simply die out of its own accord.
“Globally the case has largely been won, and the few countries which still catch whales – Norway, Iceland and Japan – take small volumes,” said Truls Gulowsen, the director of Greenpeace Norway. “While there is a growing recognition that actions alone can act as PR for whaling, and we obviously don’t want to contribute to that.”
“Today the catch is limited, and the number of boats and participants is dropping,” he told NRK. “The whole whale industry employs less than 100 people full-time. Settlement and employment along the coast is determined by completely different issues, like fisheries management, rights to fishing quotas, structural arrangements and delivery obligations.”
The whaler’s daughter
Whalers however believe there’s life in the industry yet. “The whale population would grow rapidly if there was a complete end to the catch,” said Olav Olavsen, a whaling veteran from Steine on the Lofoten archipelago. “There will be an imbalance in the ocean. And the world needs food. I hope and believe that the catch will continue even after my son finishes.”
Olavsen’s 14-year-old granddaughter, Dina, starred in an NRK documentary that aired on Sunday night, and revived the whaling debate in Norway. More than 300,000 people watched The Whaler’s Daughter (Kvalfangerens datter) where Dina spoke with pride about her family’s hunting tradition. The reactions flowed thick and fast on social media.
“I read some comments on NRK Nordland’s Facebook page and that wasn’t so very pleasant,” she told NRK after the program had aired. “People are free to believe what they want, but there were many unfair comments. It was not so nice to read those ones. I do not take it personally, but it is actually something my family has done for a long time. I think it is dumb that some say it is a shame for Norway, because I am quite proud of it. I think it is pretty impressive that it has gone through so many generations.”
Whaling is conducted in Norway by shooting the animals with grenade-tipped harpoons, so they die as quickly as possible. It’s estimated 80 percent die instantly, while about 10 percent need to be shot again with the harpoon gun or rifles. Siri Martinsen, the leader of animal rights group NOAH said the practice is unethical and unnecessary.
“The whale hunt inflicts serious pain on the animals,” she said. “The animals risk surviving up to an hour before they die. However, a few minutes with an exploded grenade harpoon in their body will also cause great pain for the animals.” Many of those who took to NRK’s social media pages said the same.
Dina accepted the hunt shown in the program looked brutal, but said it wasn’t as bad as it looked. “The death is usually instantaneous, and then they don’t know a thing,” she said. The times they don’t die instantly, they can feel a little.” Despite her support for her family, Dina said she did not want to be a whaler herself when she grew up. She said it had nothing to do with the negative reactions to the program, but simply that she had other dreams.