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Why Norwegian minke whaling is cruel, shameful and pointless

If you’re a fan of the quiz show, Pointless, you’ll be familiar with its format - 100 members of the public are asked to answer general knowledge questions. Contestants then try to guess the least popular responses and aim to get a ‘pointless’ answer - one which none of those surveyed has given.

I’m willing to bet that if asked ‘which countries still kill whales for profit?’ the most popular response would be ‘Japan’, maybe followed by ‘Iceland’.

So why is it that Norway’s minke whale hunt passes virtually under the radar?

No whale should face a harpoon. Your donation really will help our fight to stop the slaughter.

Whaler suggests we 'eat flowers' 

As a whaling campaigner, this has long bothered me, not least because, in eight out of 10 years in the decade to 2019, Norwegian whalers killed more whales than either Japan or Iceland - and for three of those years, killed more than those two nations combined.

Could the answer lie in the fact that Norway is geographically so close to the UK and it feels unpalatable that whaling is taking place in our own backyard, so to speak? Or does its commercial whaling sit uncomfortably next to the fact that Norway is hardly on its uppers - currently the fourth richest nation in the world (in terms of GDP per capita), with a tidy nest egg of $1.2 trillion in its sovereign wealth fund - the world’s largest. Ironically also, Norway enjoys a clean, green, environmentally friendly image, its wildly beautiful landscapes and environmental policies the envy of many other countries.

Whatever the reason for escaping censure, the fact is that Norway’s minke whale hunt last summer was the deadliest for some years, with whalers killing 503 whales, up from 429 in 2019.

The 2021 season opened earlier this month with the government once again awarding its whalers a kill quota of 1,278 minkes. As I write this, news has just come in that one vessel, the Reinebuen, has already killed 46 whales in just 13 days. Skipper Bjørn Andersen boasted that: ‘We have more animals on board now than we have ever had on previous trips. It's pretty good so early in the season .. [we] must be allowed to brag a little’. He added ‘some delicate souls do not want whaling. They think it's awful to kill animals, they should just eat flowers.’

His callous remarks sicken me.

A whale on a Norwegian whaling boat © Michael Tenten MWP
A whale on a Norwegian whaling boat © Michael Tenten MWP

Desperately cruel

It’s no secret that whaling is inhumane: a report submitted to the International Whaling Commission (IWC – the body that regulates whale hunts) in 2018 by Norwegian authorities confirmed the immense cruelty of the minke whale hunts. It revealed that nearly 20% of whales shot by grenade-tipped harpoons suffer for up to 25 minutes before dying.

I’m particularly concerned following the government’s decision last May to relax the regulations governing whaling crews, requiring only one crew member to have whaling experience and to cap it all, thanks to the pandemic, shotgun training is now delivered online rather than in real world conditions.

I’m worried that welfare standards will be even further eroded as inexperienced harpooners have been shown to create higher time-to-death rates. And in a year when many businesses were boarded up or going bust - including Norway’s whale-watch companies - why the heck were Norwegian whalers treated as ‘essential workers’?

Norwegian whaling is wasteful as well as cruel; the whalers often remove only the prime cuts of meat from each whale’s body, discarding the rest of the carcass.

Pregnant whales are easy target

Perhaps most disturbing of all - and something few people are aware of - around 70% of the whales killed are females and many of them are pregnant. Pregnant whales travel more slowly and often stick closer to shore, thus they present an easier target. The unborn calf will die alongside his or her mother and from a conservation perspective, targeting pregnant whales is likely to impact both genetic diversity and population growth.

 And whilst domestic sales of whale meat were up last year - almost certainly a temporary anomaly due to the pandemic - the general trend has been downwards for some time. Indeed, a 2019 survey commissioned by WDC and other NGOs revealed that only 4% of Norwegians surveyed said that they ate whale meat ‘often’, while two-thirds either didn’t eat it at all or only did so ‘a long time ago.’

Norway whale meat 2 Rob Lott

Norwegians don't want to eat whales

This figure was higher still amongst younger people, with 75% of 18-29 year-olds saying they never eat whale meat, or only did so ‘a long time ago’. Women are far less interested than men in consuming whale meat, either now or in the future and only 9% of the 70+ group said they consumed whale meat ‘often’.

Given the fact that domestic sales are likely to resume their downward trajectory, why on earth does Norway persist in killing whales?

The answer lies with a government hell-bent on clinging stubbornly to an industry that has long since had its day, especially in such a wealthy and otherwise forward-thinking country.

For decades, the Norwegian government has subsidised its whaling industry and strongly promoted whale meat consumption. Indeed, Odd Emil Ingebrigtsen, Norway’s minister of fisheries and seafood, recently claimed: ‘Norwegian whaling is about the right to utilize our natural resources …. whales are good food and Norwegians want minke whales on their dinner plate.’

But we know this isn’t true - Norwegians don’t want to eat whales, and in fact substantial government grants have been given to promote whale meat at food festivals and in schools. Other strategies have included attempts to offload surplus whale meat to homeless people, and government support for the development of dietary supplements and cosmetic products made from whale oil; but all have had mixed results and the trend has remained downwards.

The previously dependable export market to Japan may not be the solid banker it once was as Japan is openly conducting commercial whaling in its own waters and its government is not likely to want to admit the need to import whale meat.

 What's WDC doing?

You’ll be hearing a lot more from us on this issue, as we are working with like-minded organisations, individuals and official agencies both within Norway and elsewhere on a range of initiatives aimed at ending the slaughter.

I am really heartened by those survey results demonstrating that women and young people particularly, are turning their backs on whale meat. Norwegians are increasingly aware that reports into the number of pregnant females killed, as well as the wastage involved in the hunts, generate negative PR for Norway on the world stage.

minke whale breaching

Looking to the future

As a nation, Norwegians are environmentally aware. I believe that they will readily accept the message that every whale killed is one fewer to enjoy watching, or to help us keep the ocean healthy and fight the climate crisis.

Last December too, Norway joined 13 other nations on a global Ocean Panel with an ambitious commitment to sustainably managing 100% of the ocean area under national jurisdiction by 2025.  Norway has also joined the UK and US governments in launching a $1bn fundraising scheme aimed at protecting rainforests from deforestation and reducing harmful emissions by 2030.  Next to these worthy initiatives, Norway’s continued whaling looks hypocritical and anachronistic.

The time is right to support Norwegians in pushing back against the whalers with the message that whaling is cruel, shameful. And pointless.

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About Vanessa Williams-Grey

Policy manager - Stop Whaling and Responsible Whale Watching

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