Among the countries where whales are still hunted for commercial reasons, Norway ranks first. The highest amount of whales are killed here every year and the number has been increasing since 2017. While Norway proclaims that whaling is an old cultural tradition that should be preserved, environmental and animal rights groups have said otherwise over the years in response to its inhumane treatment of whales and more broadly to its disruption of the natural environment. Where does whaling stand in a world that is growing more and more environmentally conscious, and how should the government react to people’s changing perspectives on animal welfare?

Aiming at the moving target, the harpoon shoots out in a blasting noise and hits the whale emerging on the sea surface. Equipped with explosives, it penetrates deep into the whale’s body and explodes, blood instantly spreading across the water. With the harpoon embedded inside its flesh, the whale is slowly dragged onto the whaling vessel, sometimes still alive and in pain. Here, it will be cut and processed above a deck of blood.

As disturbing as it sounds, this is the way whales are hunted in modern-day practice. Sometimes, if the whale does not die from the initial hit, the hunter will fire additional shots at it with a rifle. Of all the whales being killed, as many as 18% do not die immediately but suffer agonising pain for up to 15 minutes.

whaling in norway A harpoon gun on whaling vessels is used to hunt whales at sea. Source: phys.org

Currently, the countries where commercial whale hunting is still in practice are Japan, Norway, and Iceland. While Iceland announced recently that it would stop its commercial whaling by 2024, there is no end in sight for the same practice in Japan or Norway. Instead, the number of whales killed during the whaling season in Norway has been increasing steadily over the past five years, from 429 in 2019 to 503 in 2020, and 575 whales in 2021, making Norway the country which has the most whales killed. 

The question is, how come one of the richest and most developed countries in the world decides to continue the inhuman practice of whaling, despite the overwhelming outcry from various environmental and animal rights groups?

Whaling in Norway

The practice of whaling in Norway dates back to the 9th century Vikings – a fact often used by Norwegian whaling supporters to justify modern-day whale hunting as a longstanding cultural tradition. In the 19th century, Norway became more technologically advanced and developed exploding harpoon cannons that allowed for more efficient and ruthless hunting. Its industry continued to expand and by the mid-1930s, Norway had dominated the global whaling industry, taking up more than half of all whales killed and producing a large share of the world’s whale oil which used to be a valuable source of fuel. 

Nowadays, commercial whaling in Norway is restricted to hunting only a particular type of whale called minke whale, which is not classified as an endangered species. Whales are mostly hunted for the consumption of their meat, some of which are exported to established markets in Japan. Despite the low demand for whale meat within and outside the country, Norwegian politicians and fishermen try to keep the practice alive and even expand this market. 

According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, whaling is considered a part of “Norway’s resource management [which] is based on the principle of sustainable use of natural resources”. Norwegian government officials also describe whaling as “something normal” and argue that whales are a good food source. However, there is nothing normal about the practice of whale hunting. 

Many pregnant whales are killed because they travel more slowly and often stick closer to shore, thus making them an easy target for hunters. What Norway does with whales is a clear infringement of the World Organisation for Animal Health’s Guidelines for the Slaughter of Animals for Human Consumption, which require that the foetus must be unconscious before it is removed from the uterus of pregnant females. In addition, Norway goes against its own Animal Welfare Act and its Wildlife Act, which state that animals should not be exposed to unnecessary suffering during slaughter. Yet, due to the nature of hunting on moving ships and sometimes under harsh weather conditions, whales often suffer from imprecise harpoon or rifle shots and die in a slow, agonising way.

Why Are Whales Important?

As a country that proclaims itself as a peacekeeping and forward-looking body, what excuses does it have for treating whales differently than other livestock or animals by denying their basic rights and welfare, even in death? This is already not taking into the fact that whaling contributes to the destruction of the marine ecosystem and subsequently to climate change. 

Many people may be surprised to learn that whales actually play a key role in removing carbon from the atmosphere. This is because whale faeces can stimulate the growth of plant plankton which absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Moreover, they are an important source of food for small marine animals and fish, meaning that whales play a role in maintaining a healthy fish population in the overall scheme of the food chain. The frequent killings of pregnant whales also mean that the population of whales is threatened in the long term since whales take a long time to reproduce. 

From all points of view, there is nothing at all sustainable about whaling, and its benefits are mere fabrications made up by politicians and fishermen to hold onto a traditional practice that is long out of style and time.

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Whaling in norway

Whale plays a key role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Source: World Animal News

The Future of Whaling

In 2019 and 2021, Whale and Dolphin Conservation conducted a survey jointly with Norway’s largest animal rights organisation NOAH and the Animal Welfare Institute. The study showed that the proportion of Norwegians who consume whale meat frequently fell from 4% in 2019 to 2% in 2021. Meanwhile, no one under the age of 35 reported that they consume whale meat. This shows that there is a declining interest in whale meat among the younger generations, which gives hope to a future free from whaling practice. 

In a world increasingly affected by climate change, as evident in this summer’s heatwaves and floods across the world, it is not acceptable for a country like Norway to destroy rather than safeguard nature’s diversity of species and the ecosystem. Commercial killing of whales cannot be tolerated in the name of cultural preservation or convenience to natural resources. In order for society to improve and move forward, people have to let go of culture or tradition that does not align with present-day circumstances. In this case, the practice of whaling should be abolished to better protect the interest of whales and also allow nature to maintain its ecological balance.

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