How Norway quietly became a whaling powerhouse

Norway killed more whales in 2015 and 2016 than Japan and Iceland combined, but the Scandinavian country has largely evaded the same level of criticism. 

Gorm Kallestad/Reuters
A full-size replica of the Ark of Noah in Oslo harbour, Norway June 10, 2016. The Scandinavian country has killed more than 5,600 whales in the past decade.

Thirty years ago, 88 countries signed a moratorium with the International Whaling Commission (IWC) prohibiting commercial whaling of any kind. As a signatory, Japan is often considered the naughty child of the moratorium, skirting rules, finding loopholes and receiving international slaps on the wrist.

A four-ship Japanese whaling fleet returned from the Antarctic Sea in March with 333 dead minke whales: a legal hunt, under the IWC's terms, because it was considered a scientific expedition. Yet the hunt sparked outrage around the world, as activists called the scientific claims bogus and criticized the IWC as incompetent.

Norway, however, takes their fondness for whaling one step further, having refused to sign the moratorium altogether. Iceland – also considered a whaling rebel – held out on the moratorium until 2002, when it signed the agreement with stipulations.

Between 2005 and 2016, Norwegians killed 5,617 whales – fewer than the 5,436 whales killed in Japan and the 1,199 killed in Iceland. But in 2014 and 2015, Norway killed more whales than Japan and Iceland combined.

"Everyone’s been so focused on [Japan], and with the International Court of Justice focused on Japan, everyone has seemed to overlook Norway," Kate O'Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), tells The Christian Science Monitor. "It's time we take an in-depth look at Norwegian whaling."

Because commercial whaling in Norway is unbound from IWC restrictions, and therefore legal, accusations against the industry have become more difficult to pursue. Anti-whale hunt activists and politicians don't really know how to reprimand Norway, because the country plays by different rules.

"They appear to be complying with necessary scientific observations, by they are watering down their own regulations more and more," Astrid Fuchs, Whaling and Trade Program Manager for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, tells the Monitor. "They are making it easier for more hunters to go after more whales in larger areas, with no one on board to monitor the whaling. With Norway, we can accuse them of really undermining the effectiveness of IWC – but it is not illegal exactly." 

Ms. O'Connell and three of her colleagues published a report on Norway's whaling industry through the AWI on Monday, emphasizing its low market value domestically and abroad.

Fewer than five percent of Norwegians regularly eat whale meat, and those who do consume, on average, about half a pound of whale meat each year. To stimulate demand, the Norwegian government has subsidized the business and funded marketing initiatives for new meat cuts such as "whale pastrami," and byproducts such as whale oil hand cream.

Norway's whale exports to Japan have also seen complications. Last year, shipments were returned to Norway because they failed to meet Japan's rigorous health standards. 

The Scandinavian country defends their practice on political and, perhaps surprisingly, environmental grounds. The Norwegian government says that Minke whales, which have been hunted along Norway's coast since at least medieval times, are not endangered in the region. Norwegian whaling argues its Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries is "based on the principle of protection and sustainable harvesting of marine resources."

In 1992, Norway joined with Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands to form the The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission as an alternative to the IWC. The Commission describes itself as "an international regional body for cooperation on the conservation, management and study of marine mammals in the North Atlantic."

"It really is counter-logical to me why they are clinging so strongly to this industry when it doesn't make sense economically," adds Ms. O'Connell. "You think 'Oh whales, how important can they be in terms of geo-politics?' But IWC is a highly political venue." 

Above all, Norwegians say their whaling practice is necessary to protect local fish stocks. Whales are consuming too much fish, say proponents, and they need to be "culled" to ensure health fish populations.

But scientists, including some Norwegian researchers, disagree, arguing instead that whales are a crucial aspect of underwater ecosystems. This is a surprisingly disingenuous argument, some experts say, considering Norway's reputation as an environmental leader.

"Norway continues to give the impression that its whaling is sustainable," write the authors of AWI's Frozen in Time report. "However, by arbitrarily lowering the precautionary tuning level set by the IWC, by allowing open hunts rather than setting quotas by small area, and by making whales the scapegoat for collapsing fish stocks, Norway has called its scientific integrity into question."

When asked about next steps forward, both O'Connell and Fuchs say education is key. 

"Norway is a very rich country, you can't threaten them with sanctions," says Fuchs. "You have to focus on the electorate because if they start to question their government and realize whale-watching is an additional revenue, this will bring a solution along with diplomatic actions from other countries."

When Japanese citizens learned about their government's subsidies for the whaling industry, public disapproval of the practice rose. This would likely be the same case in Norway, says O'Connell. Citizens are also typically unaware of whale-watching's substantial revenue stream, as proven by the recent boost to Iceland's tourism economy.

"They are clinging to this past notion of what Norway was in history," O'Connell argues, "rather than recognizing what Norway could be in the future."

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