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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.

Biofuels are hailed as a solution to our dependence on fossil fuels, emitting less harmful particulates and being renewable as long as their sources keep growing. A study evaluating corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel found that compared to their fossil fuel counterparts, ethanol fuels emit 12% less greenhouse gas per unit consumed and 41% less for biodiesel; if implemented widely, there is potential for dramatic reductions in our emissions. But is it too good to be true?

How are biofuels made?

Currently, biofuel production mainly revolves around the production of biodiesel, obtained through extracting methyl esters from vegetable oils and animal fats; and ethanol, obtained by extracting sugars and starch from plant material. The use of biofuels has gained popularity in countries such as Brazil, where it represents 25% of the fuel demand of the countries’ road transport. Indeed, biofuels have gained the most popularity within the transport sector, with key advantages being its ease of integration with current infrastructure and vehicles. Biodiesel can be adopted by existing biodiesel engines without needing new adaptations, while fuels with lower ethanol content can be used in most petrol engines. As of 2018, biofuels account for 3% of transport fuel demand globally, expected to rise to 9% by 2030.

Biofuels also see potential expansion into the aviation industry, an industry which has historically been completely reliant on crude oil, accounting for 5.8% of global oil consumption and 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has pledged a net reduction in aviation CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050, which it aims to do by introducing low-carbon fuels. Some airlines such as Delta Airlines, which has committed $1 billion USD towards becoming carbon neutral, have also begun investing in biofuel. Today’s aviation biofuel development is fairly limited, only accounting for 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption, with only 5 airports around the world offering regular distribution, but with the level of investment and IATA’s commitments this is likely to grow in the future.

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Disadvantages of Biofuels

The rising demand and adoption of biofuels could bode well for the planet’s emissions, especially with major pollutants such as the aviation industry making the change. However, some have argued completely the opposite in that this growing demand for biofuels would increase total emissions instead, as valuable carbon sinks would be lost to deforestation. Today, ethanol and biodiesel production depend heavily upon growing key ‘energy crops’, such as sugar cane, soy beans and oil palms, which require large amounts of land. Soy, along with rapeseed, also have low energy returns, generating only 500-1000 litres of biodiesel per hectare, requiring even more land for the process to generate returns. 

As of 2011, 11.8% of Brazil’s total cultivable area was dedicated towards growing these energy crops for biofuels, constituting 8.82 million hectares, an area roughly twice the size of Switzerland. In the absence of land however, the most popular method is simply to clear existing forests in order to make space to grow crops. This, coupled with the increase in demand from the transport and aviation sectors, is likely to result in huge swathes of tropical rainforest being cleared to make space for growing energy crops. These changes in land use generate ‘indirect emissions’ due to the loss of a carbon sink to offset emissions, and also in the destructive processes used to clear the vegetation, especially slash-and-burn agricultural practices. 

In particular, this could also see the expansion of the palm oil industry, used for biodiesel; which has been labelled by Rainforest Foundation Norway as an ‘ongoing environmental catastrophe’ due to its rapid expansion and increase of indirect land use emissions. Although palm oil yields the highest energy returns for every hectare planted, it is estimated that it would take 70 years for a mature palm plantation producing biodiesel to repay its carbon debt, and 110 years without methane storage. The European Commission further estimates palm oil biodiesel generates a carbon footprint three times larger than their fossil fuel counterparts, due to the changes in land use its production generates.

So how environmentally sustainable are biofuels really? It is rather our near-insatiable needs instead of the biofuels themselves that are making forests go up in smoke, as farmers scramble to make room for energy crops to meet our demand. Large-scale biofuel production inevitably encourages the destructive processes that commercial agriculture use to generate their immense yields of crops, potentially offsetting any good that using biofuels as a fossil fuel replacement can generate.

Despite this, biofuels could remain a viable future option. Algae as a source for biofuels is gaining popularity; by harvesting oils and lipids from them in a similar process to biodiesels, or extracting sugars to create ethanol fuels. Algenol, a biotech company in the US, has developed processes to produce ethanol, gasoline, jet and diesel fuel from algae for $1.30 USD a gallon, with an estimated 69% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline. 

The main advantage here is that algae does not require land to grow and can even be grown in wastewater, eliminating the risk of deforestation. However, algal fuels remain a relatively new technology, currently with the lowest energy yields among biofuels. Significant investment and time would be needed, with Exxon pulling their $600 million investment into algal fuels due to the fact that it would take an estimated 25 years for it to be commercially viable. 

The more pressing issue at hand is to manage our demand and the reckless techniques employed by large-scale agriculture in order to meet them. The development of new sources and technologies such as algae show that biofuels hold great potential in meeting our future energy demands sustainably, but considerable management is needed in order to prevent them from doing more harm than good.

Featured image by: United Soybean Board

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