Norwegians Hate Whale Meat, So Why Does Norway Insist on Killing Whales?


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Norwegians killed 729 whales this year, marking the largest catch in two decades. The hunt persists despite a more than 30-year ban on commercial whaling worldwide, making Norway one of only three countries that continue to flout international restrictions. The deputy director of the Norwegian Fishermen's Sales Organisation calls this season’s haul “very good,” though he acknowledges a major problem for the industry: nobody wants to buy whale.

“There's a bottleneck in the market and the distribution,” Svein Ove Haugland told Agence France-Presse. “We must rebuild demand for whale meat.”

Pause here to appreciate the delusional worldview of whale hunters. There is no demand for their product, yet they’re celebrating increased supply. It’s like the owner of an audio cassette factory urging kids to give up mp3s because he’s making so many tapes.

Norway’s commitment to a dying industry isn’t the only problem with its annual whale hunt. The country’s claim that whales can be hunted sustainably flies in the face of history. Starting in the 1960s, the International Whaling Commission attempted to manage commercial hunting for nearly 20 years before realizing that an outright ban, enacted in 1982, was the only way to prevent these animals from being driven to extinction.

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Norway complied for a while, but its international reputation took a major hit in 1994 when it announced that it would disregard the commercial whaling ban. International Whaling Commission meetings have become an annual forum to criticize the Norwegians. The IWC has repeatedly passed resolutions calling for Norway (along with Japan and Iceland) to return to the international fold, but the organization can’t force compliance. There’s no IWC navy or police force.

Whaling is cruel—some observers report seeing whales take ten minutes to die, a death so slow that it would be unacceptable even in factory farms. (U.S. law requires that livestock be killed with a single blow or some other instantaneous method, to avoid excessive suffering.) In this footage, a harpooned minke whale struggles for a long time to free itself from Japanese whalers before eventually dying—be warned, it’s hard to watch.

Norway might not care about sustainability or cruelty or even its reputation, but what I find the most puzzling is the country’s near messianic belief that, as long as it keeps killing whales, people will come back to whale meat. The evidence just isn’t there.

The World Wildlife Fund and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society commissioned a report on the economics of Norwegian and Japanese whaling in 2009. They found that government subsidies are the only thing keeping the Norwegian whaling industry afloat. Since whaling recommenced there in the 1990s, the government has given tens of millions of dollars worth of fuel tax exemptions. It also provides free storage for the whale meat and research assistance while the industry tries to figure out what to do with the stuff. The government gave the industry $880,000 in 2002 just to get rid of whale blubber, which eventually found its way into pet food. Oslo has also launched a marketing campaign to convince the public to accept whaling. Trendy whale recipes can be found on the campaign’s website, but few Norwegians are cooking them up.

Norwegian RÃ¥fisklaget whale meat landings values and known, measured subsidies, 1994-2008. Credit: WWF

Despite the government’s generous assistance, the whaling industry continues to struggle. The number of whaling ships, now down to 20 or so, is a modern low. Sales of whale meat through the trade association’s brokerage are also steadily declining. The average Norwegian eats less than a pound of whale meat per year, and focus group research suggests consumers think of whale meat as a product of the past—the distant past. Even in a 1992 survey of what types of meat Norwegians found the most objectionable, whale tied for first—along with seal.

The United States knows a little something about the futility of pushing whale on a skeptical public. During World War I, the U.S. government hosted a publicity luncheon for whale meat at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Uncle Sam was hoping to popularize whale domestically to save beef for the troops. It never caught on.

If Norway’s whalers can’t sell this year’s catch domestically, they hope to send the meat to Japan—a country that has trouble selling the whale meat its own hunters catch under the guise of “research.” Prices for whale meat in Japan have been on the decline for two decades, and they don’t even cover the expense of bringing the meat to market. Japan now keeps somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000 tons of whale meat in long-term cold storage, hoping to find something to do with it. Japan has also rejected Norwegian whale shipments in the past due to the meat’s contamination with dioxin and PCBs. The idea that the Japanese market will save Norway’s flagging whaling industry, as you can see in this chart, is patently absurd.

Japanese research whaling: sales of by-products minus all costs involved in production, 1988-2009. Credit: WWF

Frank A. Jenssen, a Norwegian journalist who covers whaling, told a television station in May: "If it does not become easier to sell whale meat, I fear that this tradition and industry will die out. In about ten to 15 years, there may be no whalers left in Norway, and that would be a tragedy.”

I’m guessing whales would have a very different definition of tragedy. But Norway, if your whalers are looking for a way to make a living with their boats, whale watching is a $1.5 billion-a-year industry worldwide. No government subsidies or blubber storage required.

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