Norway killed whales for commercial purposes before the 1982 International Whaling Commission (IWC) decision to impose a moratorium on commercial whaling. It exported most of the whale products from the approximately 2,000 minke whales it took each year to Japan. Norway formally objected to the moratorium decision, which under IWC rules meant that it was not technically 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 the 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 also set using a method that it is not the most precautionary.
Over the course of the first 12 years of the 21st century, it appeared that the Norwegian whaling industry was in a downward spiral. In 2003, 35 whaling boats were registered. By 2013, that number had dropped to 17. A similar downturn occurred in the number of companies registered to buy and sell whale meat.
However, in 2012, the Norwegian government introduced a marketing plan to encourage whale meat consumption. The plan introduced modernized packaging for whale meat, including “ready to heat and serve” meals. Distribution of the “new” products spread beyond local markets to national supermarket chains.
Although Norway has regularly exported whale meat to the Faroe Islands since 2002, it had failed to break into the lucrative Japanese market. This has changed, thanks to a push by the Norwegian Fisheries Ministry. 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. Twenty-two vessels requested permits to hunt in whales in 2015, with a quota set at 1,286.
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 passed a resolution calling on Norway to stop whaling.
Following the adoption of the commercial whaling moratorium, the IWC asked its Scientific Committee (SC) to develop a precautionary approach on the setting of commercial whaling quotas in the event that the moratorium were to be lifted. In response, the SC developed the Revised Management Procedure (RMP). One element of the RMP used to calculate quotas is known as the "tuning level"—the fraction of the pre-exploited population that would be left after 100 years of operating the RMP. The higher tuning level used, the smaller the allowed quota.
The SC 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 Commission’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 accepted, the RMP has not been used to set catch limits because the commercial whaling moratorium is still in place and no advice on catch limits has been made by the IWC.
Norway initially did set its quotas based on the .72 tuning level, but in 2001, the country switched to using a .66 level, as quotas would have been markedly reduced due to the high proportion of female minke whales that were being killed. In 2003, the government again changed the level that it was using, to .62, as there had been a reduction in the abundance estimates for minke whales. 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 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 this 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. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that 57.4 percent of the world's commercial fisheries are fully exploited and 29.9 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 eaten by humans.
Furthermore, although whales are high on the marine food chain, the ocean food web is complex, and there are several other large predator fish such as tuna and billfish that 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.
Marine ecosystems are highly complex, and 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. 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 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 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 platforms 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: when, upon visual observation—usually by the whaler—it displays relaxation of the lower jaw and no flipper movement, or 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). 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%) suffer a lingering death. In 2005, an undercover investigation by EIA 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 Fisheries department 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 the number of shots fired each year from whaling vessels in Norway and Greenland amount to about 1,000 shots fired, divided between 50 to 70 vessels. It was felt that the number of misfirings for the whaling cannons is “alarmingly high." Problems such as the lack of spare parts for such old guns were noted, as well as wear and tear on equipment.
Myth/Allegation: Norwegian whaling is well-managed
Fact: In 1985, the International Whaling Commission declared that the minke whale stock targeted by Norwegian whalers was a Protection Stock; this was 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 on-board “blue box” which records vessel movements and data on firing of harpoons, but it is not a real-time reporting device. Information on the blue box is only obtained after a whaling trip has been completed. Further, inspectors visit whaling vessels for occasional spot checks only.
Norwegian regulations also require all whaling vessels over 15 meters in length, in addition to having a functioning blue box, to report in real time (as do fishing vessels) by means of 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 quota over those areas, as well as issuing per vessel quotas. However, since the mid-2000s, quotas have 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 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.
It is worth noting that 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.