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Orca Community Blog

norwegian whaling


July 14, 2021


In honor of World Orca Day, we want to take a moment to acknowledge an ongoing problem that we care deeply about: the capture of whales. Our friends at WDC talk to us about how whales are still being captured today and why this persecution is not only inhumane but also harmful to our environment.

VANESSA WILLIAMS-GREY -  WDC lead on Norwegian whaling

It’s hard to write about Norwegian whaling without asking the question: WHY? Why does one of the world’s richest countries persist in killing hundreds of minke whales each summer, when its domestic population isn’t even interested in eating their meat? 

Before answering that question, let’s look briefly at the history of whaling in Norwegian waters and shine a spotlight on current day whaling practices, highlighting just how cruel and unnecessary this industry is, especially given what we now know about the crucial role played by whales in our ocean.


The Early whaling: Norwegian whalers have hunted whales in their own waters since around the 9th and 10th centuries. However, by the second half of the 19th century, the whalers’ ability to kill huge numbers of whales really ratcheted up as new whaling techniques and technologies coming out of Norway - most notably the exploding harpoon cannon and ‘factory ships’ for processing whales at sea - paved the way for a dramatic expansion of the industry. After decimating local blue whale and fin whale populations, the whalers turned their attention to killing whales in other regions, including Iceland, the Faroes and Scotland and even as far afield as Newfoundland, southern Africa and the Antarctic. By the mid 1930s, Norwegian whalers dominated the global whaling industry, killing over half of all whales taken and producing much of the world’s whale oil. 

Modern whaling: By the 1970s, around 2,000 minke whales were being caught each year and much of the meat was sold to Japan. Unsurprisingly, Norway was not keen to lose this lucrative market and be bound by the International Whaling Commission's global ban (‘moratorium’) on commercial whaling which came into effect in 1986 and so was one of the few governments to register a formal ‘objection’ which means it is not bound by it. At first, whales were hunted under the guise of ‘scientific research’ but by 1993, Norway resumed full-blown commercial whaling citing its ‘objection’ to the moratorium.

Whilst their whaling has largely passed under the radar, the fact is that over the past decade, Norwegian whalers have killed more whales than either Japan or Iceland and on three occasions during that period, have killed more whales than those two nations combined.
And the situation is getting worse. Last year, Norwegian whalers killed 503 minke whales, the highest since 2016 and this year, the whalers seem intent on a record killing spree just to make a point. As I write, the whalers have already killed 467 whales and their permit allows them to continue until at least September. Given Norway’s self-allocated quota of 1,278 and with seventeen boats licensed to hunt this year, this year’s already grim tally is only likely to increase.

Picture of Lina Grube


It’s no secret that whaling is inhumane. A 2018 report submitted to the International Whaling Commission (IWC, the body that regulates whaling) by Norwegian authorities revealed that almost a fifth of the whales shot by grenade-tipped harpoons suffer for up to 25 minutes before dying. Can you imagine being in agony for that length of time?

Following the government’s decision last May to relax the regulations governing whaling crews, I’m worried that welfare standards will be even further eroded as inexperienced harpooners have been shown to create higher time-to-death rates. And last year, when many businesses were boarded up or going bust - including Norway’s whale-watch companies - Norwegian whalers were formally designated ‘essential workers’. Norwegian whaling is wasteful as well as cruel; the whalers often remove only the prime cuts of meat from each whale’s body, discarding the rest of the carcass.


Most people are unaware that around 70% of the whales killed are females and many of them are pregnant. Callous whalers are aware that pregnant whales travel more slowly and often stick closer to shore, so they present an easy target. An unborn calf will die alongside his or her mother, so this is a tragedy from a conservation as well as a moral perspective.

Picture of Lina Grube


Whilst domestic sales of whale meat were up last year - almost certainly a temporary anomaly due to the pandemic - the general trend has been downwards for some time. Indeed, a 2019 survey commissioned by WDC and other NGOs revealed that only 4% of Norwegians surveyed regularly eat whale meat. Women and young people were particularly disinterested: 75% of 18-29 year-olds said they never eat whale meat, or only did so ‘a long time ago’. 


The answer lies with a government clinging to an industry that has long since had its day, especially in such a wealthy and otherwise forward-thinking country. As Norwegians aren’t keen on whale meat, the government has spent decades - and huge amounts of taxpayers’ money - subsidising the industry and paying marketing companies to dream up strategies to promote whale meat as a trendy food to young people at music festivals or offload it in school lunches or to feed the homeless.

And even, (until the practice was outlawed last year) feeding surplus minke to animals in fur farms. Yes, that’s right: until recently, they were killing minkes to feed minks, which in turn were killed for their fur!

Most people regard whales as amongst the most remarkable creatures on our planet. We enjoy watching them in the wild and we recognise that they not only have an intrinsic right to life, but we also have a moral duty to ensure we don’t inflict pain or suffering upon them.

Picture of Lina Grube


And when you consider the essential role played by whales in our ocean, then continuing to hunt these amazing creatures is madness, as well as callous and unnecessary.

When a whale dies, the carcass sinks to the ocean floor in what is termed ‘whale fall’. By doing so, it safely locks away for thousands of years the many tonnes of carbon sequestered in the whale’s body. Whales also play a crucial role in moving nutrients around the ocean and whale poo stimulates the growth of phytoplankton, which absorb carbon dioxide and produce up to half of the oxygen we breathe - phytoplankton is also an important source of food for small marine animals and fish, so whales help maintain healthy fish populations. Nothing about whaling is environmentally friendly: it’s the exact opposite! Killing whales directly contributes to the climate crisis.


We are running two big campaigns this year focussed on Norway. I am really heartened by those survey results demonstrating that women and young people in particular are turning their backs on whale meat. Norwegians are increasingly aware that reports into the number of pregnant females killed, as well as the wastage involved in the hunts, generate negative PR for Norway on the world stage.

So firstly, we want to engage ordinary Norwegians and enlist their support in promoting the message that if we protect whales, we protect ourselves and safeguard our planet’s future. Our second campaign will focus upon publicising the link between the seafood sold in your local supermarket and Norway’s whaling industry, since fishermen use their boats to hunt whales during the summer season.

If you would like to make a donation to WDC to help support their work to end whaling, please click here.

Picture of Lina Grube


Vanessa Williams-Grey is Whale and Dolphin Conservation's policy manager, who works for the Stop Whaling project and responsible whale watching


WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins.  They defend these remarkable creatures against the many threats they face through campaigns, lobbying, advising governments, conservation projects, field research and rescue. Their vision is a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.