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Common minke whale

Whaling in Norway

Whalers in Norway continue to carry out commercial whaling despite falling demand for whale meat and a decline in the number of boats hunting each year.

How many whales are killed in Norway? 

Norway kills minke whales under a self-allocated quota, which was 1,278 for the 2021 season. This quota, unchanged since 2018 (previous quotas were 999 in 2017 and 880 in 2016) seems largely symbolic, since the number of whales killed over the years have always fallen far short of the official quota.

2021 saw 575 whales killed, up from 503 in 2020 and 429 in 2019 respectively. This was the highest total since 2016, but again falling well short of the quota, thus begging the question: why set such a high quota when (mercifully) it is never fulfilled? The answer lies partly in the Norwegian government’s defensive stance towards whaling and its desperate ambition to increase domestic demand for whale meat, and export whale meat to Japan, Iceland and the Faroes.


Whaling in Norway - facts

  • Norwegian whalers killed 575 minke whales in 2021
  • Many of the whales targeted are pregnant females
  • Minkes are hunted under an 'objection' to the global ban on commercial whaling
  • The hunts are heavily subsidised by the government, which constantly seeks to develop new markets
  • Norway’s government promotes whale meat to school children and young people are offered whale burgers at festivals
  • Tourists are offered whale meat in restaurants and cruise ships promote it to passengers on shore visits

Norwegian whaling: a brief history

Early whaling: Norwegian whalers have hunted whales in their own waters since around the 9th and 10th centuries. However, by the second half of the 19th century, the whalers’ ability to kill huge numbers of whales really ratcheted up as new whaling techniques and technologies coming out of Norway - most notably the exploding harpoon cannon and ‘factory ships’ for processing whales at sea - paved the way for  a dramatic expansion of the industry.

After decimating local blue whale and fin whale populations, the whalers turned their attention to killing whales in other regions, including Iceland, the Faroes and Scotland and even as far afield as Newfoundland, southern Africa and the Antarctic. By the mid 1930s, Norwegian whalers dominated the global whaling industry, killing over half of all whales taken and producing much of the world’s whale oil.

Modern whaling: By the 1970s, around 2,000 minke whales were being caught each year and much of the meat was sold to Japan. Unsurprisingly, Norway was not keen to lose this lucrative market and be bound by the International Whaling Commission's global ban (‘moratorium’) on commercial whaling which came into effect in 1986 and so was one of the few governments to register a formal ‘objection’ which means it is not bound by it. At first, whales were hunted under the guise of ‘scientific research’ but by 1993, Norway resumed full-blown commercial whaling citing its ‘objection’ to the moratorium.

Minke whaling in Norway is conducted by fishermen, the vast majority of whom resume fishing activities outside the whaling season. The hunts rely on state subsidies and the government is constantly searching for new markets to exploit, with young people and tourists their main targets.

Norway whaling myths

Myth 1 - Norway claims its whaling is 'sustainable'

For many years, scientists have expressed concern and questioned the sustainability of Norwegian whaling. Norway uses its own method of calculating numbers, which allows for more kills than many scientists at the International Whaling Commission (IWC, the body that regulates whale hunts) say would be sustainable.

Although most minke whale populations are not classified as endangered, there are still large gaps in research into their migrations and lives. Whale researchers have expressed major concerns about the apparent decline in minke whale numbers around Norway. Like all marine mammals, minke whales face the cumulative impact of many human activities, such as chemical and noise pollution, ship collisions, climate change and getting caught in fishing gear.

Pregnant whales are an easy target

Horrifyingly, official stats reveal that, between 2000-2015, over two-thirds (68%) of the minkes killed by Norwegian whalers were female and over 40% of these were pregnant.

Callous whalers are aware that pregnant whales travel more slowly and often stick closer to shore, so they present an easy target. An unborn calf will die alongside his or her mother, seriously threatening their population's reproductive capabilities and genetic diversity, so this is a tragedy from a conservation as well as a moral perspective.

WDC says: It is bad enough to know that many whales die in terror and agony, but a further sickener is the knowledge that many are pregnant females, gifting the whalers a grisly ’two for the price of one’. Is a steak harvested from a terrified pregnant whale really that appetising?

There’s also a great deal of anger over methods used to kill the whales, as well as the sheer wastage involved in the hunts.  Consumers are increasingly demanding only the leanest cuts of meat, so it is common for the whalers to remove prime cuts from the dead whale and then toss the rest of its carcass overboard, often in view of other boats or close to shore.

In recent years, communities in northern Norway raised a public outcry against the dumping of whale remains, with one local stating, ‘I found stinking whale stomachs, blubber and intestines floating in the fjord and stuck on land’. In August 2017, German campaigners filmed the killing of a minke whale. According to their footage, the whale did not die instantly and probably suffered a great deal, before being finished off by rifle. The whale’s carcass was then ‘bled out’ and its blubber dumped overboard, in full view of a nearby vessel with young children on board.

Myth 2:  Whaling is environmentally friendly

Whalers present the consumption of whale meat as an environmentally friendly alternative to the large amount of climate-damaging methane that is produced, for example, in beef production.  However, this argument fails to recognise the scientific consensus that whales are an essential part of the ocean ecosystem. Whales play a crucial role in removing carbon, which keeps carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Whale poo stimulates the growth of plant plankton which absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen - they are also an important source of food for small marine animals and fish, so whales help maintain healthy fish populations. Nothing about whaling is environmentally friendly – it’s the exact opposite. Whales are our allies in fighting climate change – when we kill them, we’re helping to destroy our planet. By contrast, WDC celebrates whales as ‘ecosystem engineers’ helping to keep our oceans healthy.

Myth 3:  Whaling is humane

Pro-whalers will tell you that whaling is no more cruel than killing cows or pigs, or shooting wild animals such as deer for food. Whatever your stance on eating animals, don’t believe a word of it! Norwegian research shows that many whales suffer slow, agonising deaths, some suffering for up to 25 minutes after they are harpooned. Can you imagine being in agony for that length of time? 

A time to death rate of this length (not to mention the exploded metal inside their body) would not be tolerated for land animals in a slaughterhouse where there are strict regulations. Ironically, Norway was one of the first European countries to require that animals are stunned before slaughter, but this protection is not given to whales. Following the government’s decision in May 2020 to relax the regulations governing whaling crews, our fear is that welfare standards will be even further eroded as inexperienced harpooners have been shown to create higher time-to-death rates.

Myth 4: Whaling is regulated and observes IWC rules

Norwegian whalers hunt in defiance of the IWC's whaling ban and the industry sets its own kill-quotas using a method that is not supported by IWC members and which has been rejected by many countries and scientists. Bit by bit, the Norwegian government has also cut the bureaucratic burden of whaling regulations and lowered requirements so that more ships can hunt whales with minimal supervision.

Myth 5: Minke whale meat is a healthy food and a traditional, local delicacy

Untrue. Whales and dolphins are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of environmental contaminants including organochlorines such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), and heavy metals, including methylmercury. Toothed whales are more affected than baleen whales such as minkes, but nonetheless, tests of blubber from minke whales from the north Atlantic have revealed dangerous levels of PCBs and pesticides. In March 2015, Japan returned a shipment of Norwegian minke whale meat after tests revealed it contained unsafe levels of three banned pesticides: aldrin, dieldrin and chlordane.

Furthermore, minke whales are migratory and spend only part of their lives in their feeding grounds in Norwegian waters. They do not belong to Norway and are most certainly not ‘local’. Despite the government hype, the fact is that whale meat has hardly played a role in Norwegian cuisine. Indeed, a 2019 study commissioned by WDC and partner organisations found that only 4% of Norwegians surveyed said they often eat whale meat. Women and young people were particularly disinterested: 75% of 18–29 year-olds said they never eat whale meat, or only did so ‘a long time ago’.

Myth 6: Killing whales is necessary to protect commercially valuable fish stocks

Norway tries to claim that whaling must be carried out because ‘whales eat too many fish’. In January 2018, Fisheries Minister, Per Sandberg, wrote an opinion piece denouncing as a ‘vicious myth’ the idea that whales are endangered and claiming that Norway conducts a ‘balanced study’ of whales because sustainability is an important factor. He went on to state that the Norwegian government spends a great deal of money on research to prove that whales eat “as much fish as humans do”.

WDC says: "We must counter the illogical - and untrue - argument made by whaling nations that they need to kill whales to protect fish stocks. Illogical, because, in the same breath, the Norwegian government assures us that its whaling is ‘sustainable’ and not impacting whale stocks (they can’t have it both ways!), and untrue, since researchers have mapped fish catches against species which whales eat and have demonstrated that there is little overlap with human fisheries. This is because whales largely catch species we don’t target, in areas where we don’t fish! Any blame for declining fish populations lies squarely with humans.

So why does the slaughter continue?

How can Norway - a country which is so liberal and politically correct in other ways and which was named by the World Bank in 2018 as the world’s richest - justify supporting and indeed promoting this cruel and archaic industry in the 21st Century?

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.  As Norwegians aren’t keen on eating whale meat, the government has spent decades - and huge amounts of taxpayers’ money - subsidising the whaling and paying marketing companies to dream up promotion strategies.

Declining domestic demand, especially amongst women and young people has forced the industry to be more creative in its attempts to spark an interest in whale meat in other sectors of the population. However, efforts in recent years to promote products such as whale burgers and whale sushi to students and young people attending popular Norwegian music festivals such as Bukta, Træna or Inferno, have largely flopped, as have efforts to offload the meat in school lunches or to feed the homeless.

Clearly panicked by domestic disinterest, the Norwegian government’s instinctive response is to go on the attack. In early 2020, Norway’s minister of fisheries and seafood, Harald Nesvik, declared “whales are healthy and are good food … Norwegians want minke whales on the dinner plate.”  However, the facts demonstrate that he is wrong on both counts.

Unwary tourists keep the trade alive

“Wandering around Tromsø, it’s easy to be struck by the number of venues boasting whale for sale. As if killing whales – when most of the rest of the world respects the international ban – was not enough, it felt doubly insulting to see Norwegian minke whale carpaccio feature on one harbourside menu at 115 NOK (around £11), the same price as onion rings and chips - and cheaper than a green salad! Can the life of a beautiful, sentient creature really be valued so cheaply?”

Tourists are a prime target for those marketing whale meat, which is sold in supermarkets, dockside fish markets, restaurants and promoted aboard cruise ships. Skincare products and supplements containing whale are also available.

It could be that many tourists have yet to realise that, by purchasing whale products, they are helping to perpetuate an industry that could otherwise have died by now. Following the success of our outreach campaign to tourists visiting Iceland - which dramatically reduced demand for whale meat from 40% of tourists who admitted to sampling whale meat whilst on holiday in 2009, down to only 11.4% by 2017 - we’re also reaching out to tourists to Norway with a similar message: please don’t eat whale!  We hope tourists will lose their appetite for whale meat once they realise the steak on their plate may well have come from a terrified pregnant minke whale.

Please help us end the cruelty of whaling

Norway allows its whalers to hunt hundred of whales each year. Help us end this cruel industry once and for all.

Exports and our campaign to ban the transit of whale meat through UK and EU ports

Prior to the ban on commercial whaling, Norway exported over 50% of the meat and blubber from hunted whales to Japan. After the moratorium, Norway originally agreed to halt its trade in whale products, but instead resumed exports in 2001.

Since then, we have seen concerted efforts by Norwegian (and Icelandic) whalers to increase their profits by exporting to Japan and other countries. In recent years, Norwegian whalers have shipped around a third of their catch to Japan.

Prominent individuals in the whaling industry have made much of the role of enhanced trade as being a signal that whaling can be made profitable. Such transit has often involved whale products being moved through ports in countries which oppose whaling. For example, the UK and the EU currently allow ships carrying whale meat and products to dock at our ports, despite our opposition to whaling.

Isn’t it illegal to ship whale meat halfway across the globe?

Sadly not. As is the case with Icelandic whale meat exports, the shocking truth is that Norway, along with Japan and Iceland, holds a ‘reservation’ against the listing of minke whales under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and, therefore, can legally trade whale products with each other.

Here are some examples of recent shipments:

February 2013: 4,250 kilos of frozen whale belly meat, blubber, tails and fins were exported to Japan via Rotterdam, Le Havre, Hamburg and Southampton, before heading on to Japan via the Suez Canal.

March 2015: Japan dumped a shipment of Norwegian minke whale meat after routine safety tests discovered that it contained up to twice the permitted level of three banned pesticides (see Myth 5 above).

October 2016: 3,455 kilos of minke whale meat were shipped to Japan via Hamburg.

July 2017: 432 kilos of whale meat was exported to the Faroe Islands.

October 2018: 148.3 metric tonnes of Norwegian minke whale meat was shipped to Rotterdam and the meat transferred to another container vessel which sailed on, via Hamburg and Busan, Korea, before reaching Sendai, Japan, in November.

October 2019: A shipment of 201.2 metric tonnes of Norwegian minke whale meat was again shipped via Rotterdam and Busan, arriving in Hakata, Japan in late November.  [Data supplied by AWI, Animal Welfare Institute]

WDC working to end whaling in Norway

Whalers much prefer to keep the public, including their own population, in the dark, feeding them misinformation. The very last thing they want is for anyone to shine a spotlight on their activities, so one of the most important things WDC can do is to publicise the cruelty of their hunts and highlight what you can do to help.

In recent years we have:

  • Repeatedly highlighted the cruelty of the hunts and contributed to resolutions tabled at the IWC (International Whaling Commission) meetings
  • Mustered over 100,000 signatures to a petition supporting a Resolution by European MEPs to the EU Commission calling for a ban on the transit of whale meat from Norway (and other whaling regions) through EU ports
  • Briefed the UK government on the anomaly of allowing whale products to pass through our ports and called for a ban on such transit
  • Produced flyers informing tourists to Norway exactly why they should avoid supporting the killing by eating whale meat or purchasing products made from whales.
  • Publicised the large percentage of pregnant females killed in the hunts. This is by no means the ‘accident’ the whalers claim but rather, a cynical exploitation of the fact that pregnant whales are easy targets, being larger and slower.
  • Briefed the media repeatedly on the cruelty and wastage involved in the hunts including dumping whale carcasses overboard in view of passenger boats or close to harbours.
  • Worked with partner organisations to survey Norwegians on whale meat consumption and attitudes to whaling
  • Worked with whale watch tourism experts within Norway to approach the government, calling for regulations to improve the current industry, as a responsible, profitable whale watch industry is one of the most powerful arguments against whaling: every whale killed is one fewer to be watched.