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Four hundred and eighty-one. That’s how many minke whales Norway has killed so far this year, according to new data released by the country’s Fishermen’s Sales Organization, or Råfisklaget. That’s 52 more than all of last year, and 76 more than the two years before that. What’s more, this year’s whaling season in Norway has yet to end, so additional whales may still be slaughtered. Overall, this whaling season is the “deadliest in years,” according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), a Washington, D.C.-based NGO.

“The current increase in numbers shows how desperately Norway is clinging to its whaling activities,” Fabienne McLellan, co-director of international relations at Swiss NGO OceanCare, told Mongabay in an email. “It’s just cynical to classify the whaling industry, which is artificially kept alive through subsidies, to be of systemic importance during the COVID-19 crisis.”

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a global moratorium on commercial whaling activities, but Norway formally objected to this ruling. Eleven years later, the Nordic country resumed commercial whaling, and since 1993 has hunted more than 14,000 minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata).

During their migration in the North Atlantic Ocean, male and female minke whales tend to segregate, with females traveling further north along the Norwegian coast. As a result, about 70% of whales killed in the Norwegian hunts are females, and pregnant ones at that, McLellan says.

“Pregnant females are slower and accordingly also easier to kill,” she said. “Standing on a whaling vessel that is constantly moving, it is difficult to distinguish whether the whale is pregnant or not.

“Also it is to be assumed that the females swim closer to the coast for energy and security reasons and are therefore caught more easily,” she added.

Targeting pregnant females could impact genetic diversity and population growth, says Kate O’Connell, marine animal consultant at AWI. “[T]he cumulative effects of this over the years is of concern,” she told Mongabay.

Animal welfare advocates also say that whaling is cruel. The whalers will strike a moving whale with a harpoon, which is meant to instantly kill them. But in many instances, it takes a long time for the whales to die, according to a report.

This year, Norway also loosened its constraints on whaling operations, which exacerbates animal welfare concerns, O’Connell said.

“[T]he government opted to weaken whaling regulations yet again, by requiring that only one person on board a whaling vessel would need to have whaling experience, and even then, only have participated in a whale hunt once in the last six years,” she said. “This poses a significant problem for the welfare of the whales targeted, as less experienced harpooners have been shown to have higher time to death rates.”

This year’s higher kill rate may be due, in part, to favorable weather during the whaling season, as well as the two extra boats used in this year’s hunts, according to O’Connell.

“Only ten vessels hunted last year, and the 2019 kill total of 429 was one of the lowest in a decade,” she said. “Given that twelve boats have hunted this year and the kill rate is higher appears to indicate that the industry is not yet in its death throes.”

It might also have to do with demand. Representatives from the whaling industry say that sales are up this year, possibly due to Norwegians wanting to buy local foods during the COVID-19 pandemic, and choosing to travel within Norway instead of going abroad. Øyvind Andre Haram of Norsk Hval, an organization that promotes the Norwegian whaling industry, likens current whale meat consumption in Norway to the “old days.”

“This year we see for the first time that the arrows point in the right direction, and it is very gratifying,” Haram told national media company NRK in Norwegian.

“I have worked with this for a six-year period, and have never experienced as much interest as this year,” he added. “The producers have … not been able to get enough meat into the shops.”

Per Rolandsen, a sales consultant at Norges Råfisklag, a Norwegian fishing association, told NRK that the whaling industry hopes to kill more than 500 whales this year.

While the pandemic may be driving up local whale meat sales, a 2019 survey, commissioned by Oceancare, AWI and other NGOs, suggests that whale meat is falling out of favor with Norwegians. It found that only 4% of polled Norwegians admitted to frequently consuming whale, while two-thirds of the participants said they consumed whale a “long time ago” or had never eaten it at all.

“The Nordic country is financing a range of projects aimed at boosting whale product sales in the domestic market,” McLellan said. “For example, the government supports the development of dietary supplements, alternative pharmaceuticals, and cosmetic products from whale oil.”

Whale meat is also being sold as “hipster food” at music festivals and trendy restaurants, served on cruise ships, and even being used as animal feed at fur farms, she added.

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Norway also exports whale meat and products to Japan, Iceland, and Denmark’s Faroe Islands, despite a CITES regulation that bans the commercial trade of whale products.

“One whale meat company, Myklebust Hvalprodukter, has been relatively successful in finding a market in Japan, going so far as to open a branch there,” O’Connell said. “Last year it shipped some 200 metric tons of whale products to Japan.”

Japan and the Faroe Islands have continued whaling, while Iceland’s industry appears to have ceased, at least for the moment.

McLellan says she believes that the IWC should formally address Norway’s commercial whaling activities, which it hasn’t done since 2001, and that member states of the European Union need to place pressure on Norway for commercially whaling in European waters. She also says that tourists can play a role by avoiding consuming whale meat when visiting whaling nations, and choosing to support whale-watching activities.

“While Iceland and Japan have been subject to diplomatic pressures in the past, Norway has so far been largely spared from criticism, despite being the whaling nation number one, carrying out whaling activities in European waters,” McLellan said.

“Norway should acknowledge that whaling is no longer a necessary industry and stop issuing quotas in defiance of the IWC’s moratorium,” she added.

Featured image by: Erik Christensen

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

On a cold and snowy day in 1926, the two remaining grey wolves in Yellowstone National Park were killed by park rangers. This singular moment of man-on-wolf violence marked the end of a decades-long extermination campaign against Yellowstone’s apex predator, and the howl of the American grey wolf was silenced for generations. Fortunately, thanks to a wave of environmental campaigns in the 70’s and 80’s, the wolf achieved a miraculous return to Yellowstone and has healed the ecosystem to an extent that no one could have imagined. 

The American Grey Wolf- Yellowstone’s Apex Predator

Standing nearly a metre at the shoulders and between 1.2- and 1.8m from nose to tip of the tail, grey wolves can weigh up to 58kgs and sprint at paces of up to 56km/h. These massive canines are the largest members of the dog family and possess intensely acute senses of smell and night vision. The eyes of wolves are piercing – they are striking blue as pups and transition to shades of light yellow, brown, and gold upon adulthood. 

Grey wolves are extraordinarily social animals and live in packs with intricate familial dynamics. A pack typically consists of 6-10 wolves, with an alpha male and an alpha female leading their ‘subordinates’. Usually, the alpha male and alpha female are the only wolves in the pack to mate. Each wolf possesses unique personality traits and upholds its own allocated role within the pack. Wolf packs work together to collectively raise and care for pups, hunt down large prey, and defend their expansive territories. Wolves roam large distances with their packs and have been known to travel up to 19km in a single day. 

Wolves howl to facilitate intra-pack communication, defend their territories from invading packs, coordinate social activities, and sometimes, like dogs, simply because they hear the howling of others. These piercing calls can be heard for 11km in forested areas and for 16 km in open areas. 

Despite their large statures, fierce pack ties and status as top predators, wolves tend to live short and tumultuous lives. Interaction between packs is typically aggressive and often fatal, with 65% of collared wolves ultimately being killed by wolves in rival packs. The lifespan of a grey wolf is generally around 4-5 years within the protection of Yellowstone National Park and just 2-3 years outside of the park’s borders. 

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A Turbulent History – Elimination, Reintroduction, and Ecological Change

Grey wolves once roamed freely across an enormous range from the Arctic tundra to Mexico. However, once settlers began expanding westward in the late 19th century, much of the wolves’ natural prey and habitat was eliminated due to the spread of agriculture and ranching. Naturally, wolves began to prey on domestic livestock, which threatened the livelihoods of Western ranchers. Big-game hunters viewed wolves as hunting competition, and many humans harboured a general fear of these massive canines. 

Coordinated grey wolf extirpation programs quickly ensued, with the practice of bounty hunting supported by both state and federal agencies. The two remaining wolves in Yellowstone, still pups at the time, were killed by park rangers in 1926. By the mid 1900’s, wolves were almost entirely eliminated from the lower 48 states. 

With the region’s apex predator forcefully eliminated, the ecological systems of Yellowstone and the surrounding areas became severely imbalanced. The elk population exploded, which led to overgrazing of vital willow and aspen plants, which beavers depend upon for food and shelter. With fewer beavers and dams, water temperatures rose too high to support cold-water fish. Songbird populations diminished, coyote populations surged and riverbanks began to erode. 

When the Endangered Species Act came into effect in 1973, grey wolves were one of the first species to be added to the list of endangered species. But because of the deep controversy surrounding the grey wolf, true conservation efforts did not take place until the 1990’s. 

January of 1995 kicked off one of the most successful conservation endeavours in history. 14 grey wolves were captured in Canada, transported to Yellowstone, and following a 10-week environmental acclimation program, were released into the wilderness of the park. 17 more wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1996. 

The ecological restoration that followed was stunning. The beavers returned, elk populations stabilised, songbirds rebounded, and cold-water fish, willows and aspen flourished once again. Doug Smith, senior wildlife biologist from the Yellowstone Wolf Project, compared these magnificent ecological changes to ‘kicking a pebble down a mountain slope where conditions were just right that a falling pebble could trigger an avalanche of change’. 

Looking Forward  

As of 2020, which marks the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction of the grey wolf, there are at least 94 wolves and 8 separate packs living within the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park. 

Although their populations are stable, grey wolves are still threatened by fear and misinformation. Despite ongoing narratives that they present dangers to humans and livestock, wolves almost never attack humans, and they kill only 0.2% – 0.3% of available livestock. Grey wolves are also threatened by laws in Montana and Wyoming, which allow them to be hunted outside of national park borders. 

In the words of Jamie Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, “It’s not finished…We still have a lot of conflict, and concerns.” However, regardless of the challenges ahead, the grey wolf has undeniably become a glimmering icon of hope amidst a multitude of endangered species and ecosystems in need of saving. 

The howl of the wolf is here to stay. It is now time to answer the calls of all other struggling species, so that they too can maintain their places within the symphony of the wild. Doing so will not only allow individual species to flourish, but will also help to preserve ecosystems all over the world.

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