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—and that of other nations—to an industrial scale over a much broader area. 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. After World War I, in response to dwindling whale stocks and a shortfall of whale oil for its own market, some of Norway’s whalers returned to Norway’s own waters, 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 IWC’s moratorium decision, which means that it is not bound by it. It also “took a reservation” to the ban on international trade in whale products imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means it can trade legally with other CITES parties that hold reservations (Iceland and Japan) and with nonparties to the treaty.
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 nearly 14,000 minke whales. Norway’s quotas have not been approved by the IWC, and are set using a method (see “Myths and Facts” below) that has not been agreed to by the IWC. (The IWC approved the most precautionary of the options presented to it by the Scientific Committee.)
Consumption of whale meat is on the decline in Norway. A recent survey commissioned by AWI and other animal protection groups revealed that most Norwegians have little interest in eating whale meat:
- Overall, only 4 percent of Norwegians polled admitted to eating whale meat “often,” while two-thirds either have never eaten it or only did so “a long time ago.”
- Younger people are even less interested in eating whales. None of those polled in the 18–29 age group said they ate whale meat “often,” and 21 percent said they ate it only “rarely.” The vast majority—75 percent—said they have never eaten it or only did so a long time ago.
- Consumption is highest among those aged 70 and older, with 42 percent eating whale meat at least occasionally. Only 9 percent said they consumed whale meat often, however.
As sales have declined, the number of whaling boats participating in the Norwegian hunt has fallen, as more and more boats have preferred to focus on fishing. In 2003, 35 whaling boats were registered in Norway. By 2013, the number of active whaling boats had dropped to 17, and by 2019 to only 12. For most of the 2019 whaling season, no more than four vessels hunted at any one time. However, the 2020 season has seen an increase in the number of vessels requesting whaling permits, and at least early in the season as many as 10 boats were hunting at the same time.
There has also been a downturn in the number of large processing companies registered to buy and sell whale meat. The domestic market is so diminished, Norwegian whalers are removing only the most valuable cuts of meat from carcasses and discarding the rest at sea. In 2019, they killed 429 whales—one-third of the self-allocated annual quota and the lowest number killed since 1996. Consequently, a growing number of whaling vessels have requested permission to sell whale meat directly to consumers, in an effort to cut out intermediaries and improve their profits.
The government continues to set high quotas and fund promotional campaigns and research into alternative uses of whale products, including for animal feed. It has introduced several marketing plans to encourage domestic whale meat consumption, including marketing whale burgers and tacos, modernizing packaging for whale meat, including “ready to heat and serve” meals, and expanding the distribution system to ensure that the “new” products are available both in local markets and in national supermarket chains. In 2017, the Norwegian government introduced a subsidized program to introduce school children to whale meat, and in 2018 it gave half a million kroner (at that time, equal to about $55,700/GBP46,000) to support marketing of minke whale meat. It has also looked to uses beyond human food for whale products, including the development of food supplements and animal feed. In recent years, the whaling industry has sold products to fur farms to use in animal feed, but new legislation banning fur farming in Norway will shut down that income stream in the near future.
Norwegian whaling companies are also looking for export markets. One has even established a branch in Japan to which, in 2019, it exported 200 metric tons of whale meat and blubber (equivalent to the meat and blubber taken from roughly 100 minke whales). Norwegian whalers are also shipping whale meat to Iceland, a whaling nation that did not hunt any whales in 2019, and to the Faroe Islands. Since 2002, Norway has exported more than 800 tons of frozen whale meat and blubber. The government is now looking at markets for fresh whale meat, which sells at higher prices than frozen. AWI has called on airlines that serve Norway and Japan to pledge not to carry whale meat as air freight.
Despite declining local demand, tourists to Norway are consuming whale meat in restaurants, based upon a mistaken belief that this represents a “typical” or “traditional” local product. Tourists are also purchasing nutritional supplements and skin creams containing whale oil. Because of the CITES trade ban, those who bring such products home to the European Union, the United States, and many other countries are breaking the law and could face significant penalties.
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 42.5 percent of those are pregnant. Norway’s whaling also has serious repercussions for animal welfare. A report submitted in 2016 to the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission and subsequently shared with the IWC by Norwegian authorities revealed that 18 percent of the whales shot by grenade-tipped harpoons did not die instantly. Within this group, the median time to death was 6 minutes. One whale took 20–25 minutes to die.
For more information on Norway’s hunt, see the AWI-coauthored report Frozen in Time: How Modern Norway Clings to Its Whaling Past.
MYTHS AND FACTS on NORWEGIAN WHALING
Whales eat large quantities of fish that are also food for other species, including humans. Thus, it makes sense to cull whale populations to ensure balance in the marine ecosystems.
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 going on 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 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization found that 33 percent of fish stocks today are classified as overexploited and 60 percent are fully fished, while Illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing now represents up to one-third of global fish catches.
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 organisms that are 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. 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.
None of the species caught are endangered. On the contrary: The populations of minke whales are stable, viable, and sustainable.
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. Following its implementation of a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, 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 0.90, 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 (0.60) to the far more precautionary (0.72). The IWC adopted the 0.72 tuning level in 1991 and approved the RMP in 1994. In June of 2010, the Scientific Committee again stated that only the 0.72 tuning is the IWC’s agreed value. The 0.72 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 0.72 tuning level, but in 2001, the country switched to a 0.66 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 lowered the level to 0.62 and dropped the level again, to 0.60, in 2005. This was due in part to a Norwegian government policy change calling for more whales to be killed in order to benefit fisheries (see below). This 0.60 level continues to be used despite concerns repeatedly raised by the IWC.
Notably, recent studies by Norwegian scientists based on surveys indicate that the abundance of minke whales in the waters off Svalbard, a key location for Norwegian whalers, shows a considerable decrease (45%) compared to a 2008 survey, with the lowest number of whales seen since 1995. Further, the most recent estimate from the Norwegian Sea also indicates a decrease in abundance, with the current estimate being the lowest over two survey cycles. In addition to these lower numbers, studies have found that there has been a decline in the body condition of North Atlantic minke whales over the course of the past two decades.
The catch is ethically sound. According to the latest evaluation of Norwegian whaling from 2015, Norwegian catchers are killing very effectively, with more than 80 percent of strikes causing immediate death or unconsciousness.
Given that whales are only visible for a short period when they surface to breathe, the thorax (the initial target in the Norwegian hunt) and the brain (the target for a secondary rifle shot when the initial harpoon fails to kill a whale) offer only small, briefly accessible targets for a gunner standing on a moving platform on a shifting sea, often under difficult weather and sea conditions. For the 18 percent of whales that do not die or fall unconscious instantaneously, suffering can be prolonged. The most recent full data set from Norway (from the 2011 and 2012 seasons) shows that the median time to death for whales not registered instantly dead was 6 minutes. One whale that had only been wounded was re-shot and died after 20–25 minutes.
Changes to whaling regulations threaten animal welfare. Between 1993 and 2003, all Norwegian whaling vessels were required to carry an inspector on board. In 2004, however, the government cut that coverage to only 50 percent of vessels, 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 that can record the time to death for every whale shot. Experts have indicated that this device merely “may” give an indication as to whether the whale died quickly or slowly. In 2020, the government proposed to amend the whaling regulations, including to allow people with only one recent year of whaling experience to hunt whales. Lack of hunter experience, in addition to the absence of inspectors, could significantly increase suffering for hunted whales and threaten the safety of the crew.
Furthermore, the harpooner training program does not adequately reflect real life conditions, and training courses are not held annually.
The catch is profitable. Norway has a viable whaling industry, despite zero subsidies and only one market outside Norway.
Demand for whale meat is declining in Norway, and the number of whaling boats and companies participating in the hunt is far lower than in previous decades. In 2019, Norwegian whalers killed 429 whales—one-third of the self-allocated annual quota and the lowest number killed since 1996. To boost demand, the Norwegian government funds research into new uses for whale products and marketing campaigns for meat and blubber. Not all of each whale is even used; whalers are only removing the most valuable cuts of meat from carcasses and disposing of the rest at sea.