Norwegian Whaling

minke whale - photo by Len2040

Norway has hunted whales in its own waters for centuries, but key technological advances—such as the exploding harpoon cannon, developed by its whalers in the 19th century—enabled the expansion of Norwegian whaling to an industrial scale. By the mid-1930s, Norway dominated the global whaling industry, taking more than half of all whales killed and producing a large share of the world’s whale oil. In response to dwindling whale stocks and a shortfall of whale oil for its own market, some of Norway’s whalers returned to their own waters after World War I, establishing the foundation of modern Norwegian whaling in the North Atlantic.

By the time the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, Norway was exporting most of the whale products from the approximately 2,000 minke whales it took in the North Atlantic each year to Japan. Norway formally objected to the moratorium decision, which under IWC rules, means that it is not bound by it.

When the moratorium came into effect in 1986, Norway initially undertook a small-scale scientific hunt of minke whales. In 1993, however, it announced that it would resume commercial whaling under its objection. It has continued to whale for commercial purposes since that time, killing many hundreds of minke whales every year, almost exclusively for its domestic market.

Since 1993, Norway has killed more than 12,000 minke whales. Norway’s quotas have not been approved by the IWC, and are set using a method (see “Myths and Facts” below) that is not the most precautionary.

The number of whaling boats participating in the Norwegian hunt has consistently declined since 2000. In 2003, 35 whaling boats were registered; by 2013, the number of active whaling boats had dropped to 17 and in 2017, only 14 vessels participated in the hunt. A similar downturn occurred in the number of companies registered to buy and sell whale meat.

In an effort to reverse a domestic decline in demand for whale products, in 2012 the Norwegian government introduced a marketing plan to encourage whale meat consumption. The plan included modernized packaging for whale meat, including “ready to heat and serve” meals and an expanded distribution system to ensure that the “new” products were available both in local markets and in national supermarket chains. The efforts to promote whale meat continue, with the Norwegian national supermarket chains. The efforts to promote whale meat continue, with the Norwegian government subsidizing a program in 2017 to introduce school children to whale meat.

The Norwegian Fisheries Ministry has also made efforts to break into the lucrative Japanese market to expand its international trade in whale products beyond the Faroe Islands, to which it has exported whale meat since 2002. In addition to recent exports to Japan, Norwegian whalers have also begun shipping whale meat to Iceland. Since 2013, more than 107 tons of whale meat and blubber have been exported from Norway.

As a likely result of the combined domestic marketing efforts and exports to Japan, 736 minke whales were hunted in 2014, the highest number since Norway resumed commercial whaling. In 2015 and 2016, 660 and 591 minke whales were killed, respectively—well below the authorized quotas. The 2017 quota was set at 999. The impact of Norway’s hunt is not limited to the number of whales killed; on average, 68 percent of whales taken in Norway’s hunt are female and of these, 42.5 percent are pregnant.

For more information on Norway’s hunt, see “Frozen in Time.”

Norwegian whaling Myths and Facts

Myth/Allegation: Norway’s whaling quotas are recommended by the International Whaling Commission (IWC)

Fact: The IWC adopted a commercial whaling moratorium in 1982 that came into effect in 1986. To implement the moratorium, the IWC has established zero quotas for all species of great whales, with the exception of whales killed in ASW operations. Norway is whaling in defiance of this ban by relying on an objection to the moratorium. The IWC has resolution Norway to stop whaling.

Following the adoption of the commercial whaling moratorium, the IWC asked its Scientific Committee to develop a precautionary approach on the setting of commercial whaling quotas in the event that the moratorium is lifted. In response, the committee developed the Revised Management Procedure (RMP). One element of the RMP used to calculate quotas is the "tuning level"—the fraction of the pre-exploited whale population that would be left after 100 years of operating the RMP. (For example, if the tuning level were set at .90, that would mean that 90 percent of the number of whales in a population or stock prior to active exploitation would remain after 100 years of killing, if permitted.) The higher tuning level used, the smaller the allowed quota.

The Scientific Committee offered a range of possible tuning levels to the IWC, from the least conservative (.60) to the far more precautionary (.72). The IWC adopted the .72 tuning level in 1991 and approved the RMP in 1994. In June of 2010, the Scientific Committee again stated that only the .72 tuning is the IWC’s agreed value. The .72 level means that the number of catches would be set so as to allow at least 72 percent of a whale population's initial abundance to be maintained. Though the IWC has accepted the RMP, the RMP has not been used to set catch limits because the commercial whaling moratorium is still in place and the IWC has provided no advice on catch limits.

Norway initially set its quotas based on the .72 tuning level, but in 2001, the country switched to a .66 level, as quotas would have been markedly reduced due to the higher than average proportion of female minke whales that were being killed. In 2003, the government again changed the level that it was using, to .62. In 2005, the government again dropped the level used to .60, in part due to a Norwegian government policy change calling for more whales to be killed in order to benefit fisheries (see below). This level continues to be used despite concerns repeatedly raised by the IWC.

Norway’s quotas are neither “approved” nor “recommended” by the IWC.

Myth/Allegation: Whales are eating all of our fish and need to be “culled”

Fact: Countries in favor of resuming commercial whaling have argued that killing whales may increase fisheries’ catches. At the IWC, this "whales eat fish" debate has been ongoing for years, with pro-whaling countries arguing that whaling should be resumed in order to protect fisheries catches.

In reality, the culprit behind the decline in fish populations is overfishing. In 2016, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that 58.1 percent of the world's commercial fisheries are fully exploited and 31.4 percent are overexploited. In addition, research has shown that there is little overlap between what whales consume and the main species of fish targeted commercially. Many of the fish species that whales consume are not currently eaten by humans.

Furthermore, although whales eat high on the marine food chain, several large predatory fish (e.g., tuna and billfish) are far more important consumers of commercially targeted fish species compared to whales and other marine mammals. In addition, most populations of large whales targeted by commercial whalers have still not recovered to their pre-exploitation levels.

Due to the complexity of marine ecosystems, it has proven very difficult to determine just what impact the removal of a top predator from the food chain has on commercially sought fish species. In some cases, it has been shown that removing a top predator may actually lead to a lower fishery yield by facilitating an increase in the number of mid-level predatory species. There are also concerns that culling (the deliberate removal of one species to protect another) has unforeseen long-term environmental consequences.

In an article published by the on-line science and technology journal Forskning, Norwegian zoologist Terje Lislevland from the University of Oslo stated, “The reality is that research results showing that hunting marine mammals will improve the situation for fisheries cannot be found.” Lislevland further notes that the lack of empirical data that could support the Norwegian government’s pro-culling policy is “surprising” and concludes that in addition to being wrong, the assertion that marine mammal culling is necessary is problematic in that it takes attention away from the real problems in the marine environment, namely overfishing and pollution. The article closes by stating, “The inevitable result of this is that it creates in one an impression that Norway’s management policy is junk, and based on a sense of (inflated) belief rather than science.”

A paper published by Dr. Peter J. Corkeron in the journal Biology Letters supports Lislevland’s statements, as it notes that, “The best available scientific evidence provides no justification for marine mammal culls as a primary component of an ecosystem-based approach to managing the fisheries of the Barents Sea.” Further, recent scientific studies have found that whale species are an essential component of healthy productive marine ecosystems, and could even help fish stocks rebound.

Myth/Allegation: Norwegian whale hunting is humane

Fact: All whaling is inherently cruel. Even the most advanced whaling methods cannot render the animals insensitive to pain prior to death or achieve the onset of unconsciousness, as is the accepted norm for domestic food animals. Modern whaling involves the use of harpoons fired into large, moving targets from moving ships on a shifting sea, often under extreme weather conditions.

The harpoons are fitted with penthrite grenades, which are supposed to penetrate to about 12 inches and then explode, releasing claw-like protrusions to rip into the flesh. Death can come by trauma, laceration, or a destructive shock wave to the brain. The likelihood of obtaining a clean, accurate strike resulting in a swift death is low. When not achieved, harpooned whales can take a long time to die. Even if a clean strike is thought to have occurred, measuring kill efficacy, including time to death (TTD), is necessary.

The IWC provides criteria for determining when a whale can be considered insensible and/or dead. Such criteria include visual observation—usually by the whaler—of relaxation of the lower jaw and no flipper movement in the struck whale, or where the whale sinks without active movement. Reputable scientific experts in the field have questioned the validity of these criteria and are in agreement that these are not foolproof measures of insensitivity and death.

In 2004, the IWC adopted Resolution 2004-3, expressing concern that “data presently collected and submitted to the Commission are of insufficient quality or completeness for it to make a fully informed assessment of the welfare implications of all whaling operations”. However, that same year, Norway stopped collecting data on TTD rates, Instantaneous Death Rate (IDR), and other welfare related issues.

While Norway did resume some data collection on TTD and IDR in 2012, it announced that it would not share such data with the IWC and would instead bring information on whale killing methods to the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) a regional management body that was established to challenge the IWC. It also indicated that additional data on TTD were “presently being analysed but preliminary results indicate that around 80% of the animals caught are killed instantaneous [sic], thus confirming the findings from the research programme executed in 2000-2002.”

What this means is that at least one in five whales (20%) killed by Norway suffer a lingering death. In 2005, an undercover investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (now World Animal Protection) filmed the hunting and harpooning of a minke whale by a Norwegian whaling vessel. A paper submitted to the IWC in 2006 reported the sequence of events during that hunt, which resulted in an estimated time to death of 14 minutes and 30 seconds from the moment the whale was struck by the harpoon to its last visible movement. Norwegian scientists did not challenge the findings of the analysis.

There are further concerns about the weapons being used to kill whales. Following a serious accident in the summer of 2012, which nearly took the life of a harpooner, the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries undertook a review of incidents that have occurred related to misfirings of the whaling gun. It was reported that since the 1990s there have been at least three incidents, at least one involving injuries, all related to the 50 mm Kongsberg "Whale Cannon" produced by the H. Henriksen Mek company.

The report noted that approximately 1,000 shots are fired each year from whaling vessels in Norway and Greenland, by between 50 to 70 vessels. In addition, there were an “alarmingly high” number of misfirings. Problems such as the lack of spare parts for such old guns were also noted, as well as wear and tear on equipment.

Myth/Allegation: Norwegian whaling is well-managed

Fact: In 1985, the IWC declared that the minke whale stock targeted by Norwegian whalers was a “Protection Stock” due to decades of exploitation at high levels that had seriously depleted the stock.

From 1993 through 2003, all Norwegian whaling vessels were required to carry an inspector on board. However, in 2004 the government cut that coverage to only 50 percent, and then completely did away with this requirement in 2006. Inspectors were replaced by an onboard “blue box” that records vessel position, engine speed, direction, harpoon shots, and the weight of the whale brought on deck. But it is not a real-time reporting device. Information on the blue box is only obtained by government inspectors after a whaling trip has been completed, but inspectors only visit whaling vessels for occasional spot checks.

All Norwegian whaling vessels over 15 meters in length, in addition to having a functioning “blue box,” are required by regulation to maintain an electronic logbook. However, exceptions to this regulation continue to be made for a number of whaling vessels.

Norway’s coastline is divided into sub-areas, as required by the IWC’s Revised Management Procedure (RMP). Historically, the Norwegian government divided the annual whaling quota between those areas, in addition to issuing per vessel quotas. However, since the mid-2000s, Norway’s annual whaling quota has generally been lumped together as a total, rather than broken down by sub-areas.

The Norwegian government has tended to set a quota at the beginning of the whaling season, only to amend the regulations midway through the hunt, apparently in an effort to facilitate a continuation of the whaling. For example, five changes were made to the original minke whaling regulations in 2011, all in an effort to make hunting easier for the whalers. In 2011, the only RMP sub-area for which a specific quota of 65 minkes was allocated was Svalbard. However, in June of 2011, the Fisheries Minister increased that limit to 260, and whalers eventually killed 202 minkes off Svalbard. In recent years, the Fisheries Ministry has set only an overall quota that can be taken anywhere, without vessel limits (“free hunting”). In an effort to “facilitate stability and favorable conditions for the whaling industry,” the Norwegian government has continued to relax the rules related to hunting, and to pursue its efforts to weaken the RMP.

Norwegian whalers have also disregarded regulations requiring them to submit DNA samples from each of the whales they have killed within eight days of the close of the season. A review of documents from the Norwegian government shows that a number of whaling vessels failed to comply with this directive, including several whaling boats that were still being asked for submission of the DNA data in February 2015, months after the close of the 2014 whaling season.

Notably, recent studies by Norwegian scientists show a reduction in minke whale abundance in the Norwegian Sea during the last decade (Nøttestad et. al. 2015 Recent changes in distribution and relative abundance of cetaceans in the Norwegian Sea and their relationship with potential prey. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 2(38). doi:10.3389/fevo.2015.00083.