A kill for life

While whales must be conserved as a rare species, hunting the marine mammals is felt necessary for maintaining ecological balance

Published: Wednesday 15 October 1997

-- international environmental groups and those who defend the right to sustainable use of marine mammals have been debating the issue of banning whale hunting. Those who oppose whale hunting argue that the species is on the verge of extinction.

However, for 30 Norwegian families, who are involved in hunting the 5-8 metres long minke whales during summer, it is a matter of survival. While these families are involved in fishing during winters, they catch minke whales during summers. When Norwegian minke whaling was suspended for some years (1987-92) they ran into financial trouble. Whale hunters say that the traditional catch of minke whales, whose population of 100,000 in the northeastern Atlantic is nowhere near depletion, is no big business.

The assessment of the minke whale population, however, has been disputed. In 1982, the International Whaling Commission ( iwc) decided that all commercial whaling should be stopped for a five-year period, starting from 1986. The reason given for this was that not enough knowledge was available to decide what should be regarded as a sustainable harvest of the whales.

Later, the report of iwc' s scientific committee favoured a regulated harvest of several minke whale stocks in the North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere. Several member nations of iwc demanded firm evidence on the status of stocks, as well as guaranteed control and monitoring systems before they would allow whaling to be resumed. They also questioned the killing practices in whaling. The situation reached a deadlock and Iceland left the iwc in protest, in 1992. The chairperson of iwc' s scientific committee also resigned. Norway remained with the organisation but decided to resume minke whaling in 1993 without permission of the iwc.

It is impossible to continue with international cooperation on the resources of the ocean or any other resource if preservation alone dominates the issue, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the then Prime Minister ( pm) of Norway, said in her speech to the European Council.

The pm's decision caused a wave of anti-Norwegian protests in usa and several European countries. Politicians and consumers threatened to boycott Norwegian products and some actually did so for a while. Environ-mentalists waged a war against the whalers. One group did so literally. The militant California-based organisation Sea Shepard, headed by Paul Watson, a former member of Greenpeace, nearly managed to sink the fishing and whaling vessel Nybraenna in a Norwegian port.

Norwegian whalers now have war insurance for their boats. Both Sea Shepard and Greenpeace have tried to obstruct minke whaling without success. This year, Norway has set the fishing quota at 580 minke whales.

The pertinent question that arises here is why is Norway risking economic sanctions and international contempt just for the business of a few hundred people? In response to the question, the Norwegian Fishermen's Association ( nfa ) points to the right to sustainable harvest, a principle approved by the Earth Summit in Rio. Secondly, it is a question of ecological balance. "If we utilise the resources of the sea, we must harvest in a balanced way from all nutrition chains. Whales eat a lot of fish. If we do not catch a certain number of minke whales, fishe-ries will suffer. This is important for the whaling communities, where the whalers are also fisherfolk," says Elling Lorentsen, senior executive officer of the resource department, nfa .

While a wealthy nation like Norway could manage without whaling, the financial aspect is more pressing for other poorer communities. Greenland, therefore, has been assigned a three-year quota of 465 minke whales by iwc. On the west coast of Canada, the Makah tribe has told the iwc that they considered the number of grey whales large enough to resume hunting them. The ritual hunt will help tie the tribe together as well as provide food. Both Norwegian and Japanese whalers are supporting aboriginal tribes, who want to do traditional whaling. Recently, whalers worldwide established a World Council for Whalers based in Vancouver, Canada.

Sigurd Aarvig is a freelance journalist based in Norway

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.