“It is certain that whales will talk about you in the same way as the Jews do now about the Nazis.”
Published in Intermediair, 7 May 1993, pp. 37-39.
REINE, SPRING 1993 – The battle for commercial whaling is flaming up in all its intensity. The environmental movement tries to discourage the hunters by boycott actions, sabotage and demonstrations, but the fishermen – first of all the Norwegians – are determined. For them, whale hunting is vital.
“We lay dead silent with our boat on the water and wait for them to show themselves,” says the Norwegian whaler Jan Odin Olavsen. “Minke Whales do not blow vapor clouds so if you want to catch them, the sea surface should be as smooth as glass. But windless days are rare here.”
The technique is simple. One of the fishermen is on the lookout in a tub that is attached to the mast. At the time that the whale is at a distance of some thirty or forty meters, one will shoot the harpoon. A small grenade in the tip of the harpoon explodes, beating the fish unconscious. If it is still alive, he will be shot in the head with a rifle. The seven to ten meter long fish is then skinned and processed to bits and pieces. Within the hour the animal disappears in the ship’s hold and Olavsen’s wait for the next catch starts.
Since his early childhood Olavsen has been hunting whales, first with his father and later with his own boat until the international moratorium made an end to this in 1986. Now he just catches a few Minke Whales annually “for scientific purposes”. For this year, the quota set by the Norwegian Government totals 136 animals. Around Easter the first Norwegian whalers sail out for this scientific catch. The date of the start was kept secret out of fear for actions by environmentalists.
The Norwegian scientific whaling program is tolerated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), even though there are some concerns with regard to its size. It is different with the announcement of the Norwegians in July last year during the IWC Conference in Glasgow, that they plan to reopen the commercial hunting of Minke Whales. By doing so, they antagonized the vast majority of the Member States of the IWC and the international environmental movement. The Norwegians will wait with commercial hunting until after the next IWC meeting from 10 to 14 May in Kyoto, Japan.
Olavsen lives in the fishing village of Reine, on the extreme west point of the snow-covered Lofoten archipelago, some 200 kilometers within the Arctic circle. The houses are sandwiched between the towering mountain slopes which dive almost perpendicular into the ocean, the water whirling wildly in a greenish grey around the cliffs. Reine is home to seven of the 56 Norwegian ships suitable for hunting Minke Whales. They are on average about twenty meters long and do not resemble in any aspect the huge factory ships that have made an end to the existence of a number of large whale species.
“Many people think that the Norwegian whaling still uses those big factory ships”, says the Norwegian fisheries minister Jan Henry Olsen. “But none of these barges is built especially for whaling. They are fishing boats with a crew that usually belongs to one single family.”
Norway, explains Olsen, has made use of the right of exemption from the IWC’s moratorium. The Norwegians want to restart the catch once it is proven on scientific grounds that the total stock of Minke Whales can tolerate a certain degree of hunting. After seven years of waiting, that point has been reached. Olsen: “Last year the Scientific Committee of the IWC unanimously decided that there are an estimated 86,700 Minke Whales in the North-East Atlantic. The total number is therefore in no way threatened.”
During the first years the Norwegians want to catch several hundred animals as part of the quota for scientific catch, making the total catch this year between two hundred and eight hundred animals. The Minister, however, is very concerned about the reaction of the environmental movement. The inhabitants of the Lofoten got around Christmas a taste of what can happen when Paul Watson, a member of the American environmental organization Sea Shepherd, sank a whaling vessel in the port of Svolvær. In addition, during the IWC Conference in Glasgow in July last year some called for a boycott of Norwegian exports. Since then environmental organizations are demonstrating in front of Norwegian embassies and tourist offices. It is expected that US president Clinton will put pressure to prevent a resumption of commercial whaling. In February Congress passed a resolution to that effect.
The fight takes place in and around the IWC arena. This organization was founded in 1946 by ten countries, including Norway, and was primarily intended to prevent the extinction of the large whale species. The articles of association stipulate that the Commission will take into account “the interests of the consumers of whale products and of the whaling industry”. Olsen, however, sees that more and more countries become members who themselves have no interest in whaling, while whale nations as Iceland and Canada recently cancelled their IWC membership. “If the IWC further moves toward an organization for permanent protection of whales and a ban on all commercial catch, Norway will have to revise its relationship with the IWC.”
Spokesman Martin Harvey of the IWC Secretariat in Cambridge, England, confirms that something has changed: “In the years immediately after its founding in 1946 the whaling industry was a lot stronger than it is now. Since the 60 ’s the protection of the whales is more prominent. “ He adds that there is the possibility of resumption of commercial fishing as soon as there is an agreement about the new management model, the Revised Management Procedure. There is agreement about the calculations, but not on the legal part and, for example, inspection.
For the residents of the North Atlantic coastal regions, such as the Lofoten, it takes much too long. They feel misunderstood. “The population in Reine has no other capital than the boats and the knowledge that is transmitted from one generation to the other”, argues Georg Blichfeldt. He is Secretary of the High North Alliance, an organization of communities along the northern Atlantic Ocean, from Norway to Greenland and Canada. Blichfeldt and others want a counterbalance against the environmental movement, in particular arch enemy Greenpeace.
“Our way of life is different from that of people in industrialized areas, where one needs to make money as quickly as possible,” says Blichfeldt emotionally. “We are dependent on the environment and therefore we are not out to make short-sighted profits.”
Geir Wulff-Nilsen, Mayor of the municipality of Moskenes, to which Reine belongs, points out that whaling is part of an annual rhythm, in which the various types of fishing succeed each other and the varying results complement each other. “The catch of Minke Whales is an important part of our total economic system. Moskenes and similar coastal villages have always based their existence on combined fisheries. You cannot see whaling in isolation from the rest of our work. “
The Norwegian environmental movement is in a precarious position. Norway would like to be a guiding nation in the field of the environment, but is also in favor of hunting Minke Whales. Heidi Sørensen, President of the largest Norwegian environmental organization Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth) says: “We supported the IWC moratorium in 1986, because we found that we lacked scientific figures on the total whale stock. We have these now and so it’s time to start a controlled, well regulated catch. We are also keen on the importance of the catch for local communities, like those here along the coast. “
Sørensen blames Greenpeace for “humanizing” particular animal species: “One species of animal is taken out and put on a pedestal. Of the seal they have made a baby with those big eyes. The whale is ascribed an almost human intelligence. And all that with rhetoric about the barbarous murderers who hunt these animals.”
On the other side of the dividing line are the whale protectors, likewise in varying degrees. In an open letter in the northern Norwegian newspaper Nordlys, in which he tries to answer for the attack in December, Paul Watson claims that mankind is about to communicate with whales and he warns the Norwegians: “It is certain that whales will talk about you in the same way as the Jews do now about the Nazis.”
Also Greenpeace is square against any form of whaling at this time. Spokesman Geert Drieman: “The Norwegians suggest that there is agreement within the IWC over the new management model, but that’s not true. Our opinion is that there should be no discussion about a resumption of the hunt for whales before the missing parts are ready.” According to Greenpeace, the moratorium was declared at a time when fifty years of Norwegian whaling had already reduced the Minke Whale stock with 54 percent. The current stock of 86,700 animals must still be protected against extermination, the organization says.
That the Norwegians hunt with small boats, does not mean that the hunting size is also small. According to Greenpeace in previous years per year about two thousand Minke Whales on average where caught.
For the environmental organization the poor economy in the North is no argument either. Drieman points out that Norway is one of the richest countries in the world and can take a beating.
The message that the Norwegians are resuming the commercial Minke Whale catch, was welcomed in Japanese coastal villages with great celebrations. The Norwegian plans may also be a precedent for other whale hunting countries, with Iceland and Japan leading the way. It is questionable whether there will be anyone in Kyoto with sufficient wisdom and authority to prevent a further member drain of the IWC. If Norway, Japan and Russia follow the example of Iceland and Canada and likewise leave the organization, nothing more remains than a club whose most important founders ran away and of which the Statutes are outdated. Chances are that by that time whaling is again in full swing.
Note (2017): The Red List of Threatened Species issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates the number of Minke Whales in the Nort Atlantic waters at some 180,000 and labels the species as ‘Least Concern’. The total in Antarctic waters is estimated at more than 500,000. Norwegian Minke Whale quotas balance around 1.000 annually. No other whale species are hunted by the Norwegians. As per Spring 2017 there was still no agreement on the Revised Management Scheme. Iceland joined IWC again in 2002. No verbal communication with Minke Whales has been established yet.