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Photo: Kjell A. Fagerheim, IMR.Photo: Kjell A. Fagerheim, IMR

Norwegian whaling – based on a balanced ecosystem

19.03.2013 // Minke whales have been hunted along the coast of Norway at least since medieval times. In the 1920s, the use of harpoon gun mounted on an ordinary fishing vessel replaced aboriginal methods.

By the introduction of the penthrite grenade harpoonss, the hunting methods have developed and improved extensively.  In continuance of Norwegian hunting tradition, Norway today hunts for minke whale. All other whale species are protected.

Minke whales (Balaenoptara acutorostrata) are the smallest of the baleen whales and are common all over the world. In summer, the common minke whale is distributed over all the North Atlantic. In winter, it migrates to breeding areas further south.

In the North Atlantic the minke whale reaches sexual maturity when six to seven years old, and may reach nine metres and a weight of five to eight tonnes. Most calves seem to be born around December, after a pregnancy of ten to eleven months. The calf is assumed to suckle the mother for less than six months. Like all baleen whales, the minke is well adapted to feeding on plankton but is also an important fish feeder. Minke whales off northern Norway, in the Barents Sea and off Spitsbergen consume about 1.8 million tonnes of prey from April to October.

The whale meat is used for consumption, primarily on the domestic market. Minke whaling today is a small scale costal activity and is carried out by vessels of between 40 and 80 feet in length with a crew of four to eight people. The home harbours of most whaling vessels are small fishing communities, and whaling in combination with fishing has contributed significantly to the economic and social development or rural, coastal communities in Norway.

Setting of quotas

Norwegian whaling is based on the principle of protection and sustainable harvesting of marine resources. Management of resources is founded on scientific advice, with the objective based on the concept of an ecosystem approach. Quotas are set on the basis of procedures developed by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This committee has estimated that the stocks of minke whale that we harvest in the Northeast Atlantic and around Jan Mayen total 108 thousand animals For 2013, a quota is set of 1286 animals.. This is the same as the quota for 2010-2012. The stock of minke whales off Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, the central Atlantic stock, is estimated to number 71 thousand animals. 

Norwegian whaling takes place in Norway’s economic zone, in the Fisheries Protection Zone around Svalbard and in the Fisheries Zone around Jan Mayen. The whaling season begins in April and ends in August/September. All vessels have an electronic monitoring system (black box) installed that registers all whaling activity. In addition, a corps of inspectors ensures compliance with the whaling regulations. Whalers are required to take an annual course focusing in particular on personnel safety and on ways to ensure that as little pain and stress as possible is inflicted to the hunted whales. 

Trade in minke whale products and DNA testing

In January 2001, the Norwegian Government granted permission for the export of minke whale products. Such permissions are subject to specific terms and conditions. Export licenses are granted for exports to the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Japan. The granting of an export licence presupposes that the importing country can carry out DNA testing of imported products using a system similar to that established in Norway. In 1979 the meeting of parties under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) resolved that the minke whale was a species threatened by extinction and included the species in an appendix to the convention. This meant that international trade was still permitted under terms specified by the meeting of parties in CITES.  In 1983, the parties of CITES resolved to follow the decisions of the IWC, which meant that a ban was imposed on international trade in minke whale products – one of the species of whale for which the IWC had set a zero-catch quota. Norway has formally reserved the right to disregard both the International Whaling Commission’s decision as well as the listing in CITES Appendix I (Appendix I lists animals and plants of which all international commercial trade is forbidden), and it therefore has the right to hunt whales and export whale products. 

Minke whales are not an endangered species in our areas

The reason why Norway lodged a reservation to the IWC moratorium was that the moratorium on the hunting of minke whales was not based on scientific findings. Scientific data show that minke whales are not an endangered species in our areas, and that they do not belong on the most stringent of CITES’ lists. The Cetacean Specialist Group within The World Conservation Union (IUCN) stated in January 2007 that the minke whale did not qualify as “Near Threatened” and should be moved to “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List.

In order to secure control of exports of minke whale products, a DNA register was created to determine whether whale products on the market derived from lawful Norwegian whaling, or whether they came from unregulated whaling. The register comprises analyses of all catches of minke whale from 1997 onwards. Test results are added to the DNA register as soon as possible after the whaling season has ended. 

The International Whaling Commission

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was signed on 2 December 1946. The purpose of the convention is to provide for the proper conservation and management of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry, based on scientific data. 

The obligations of the convention are managed by the International Whaling Commission, which consists of members from the contracting parties. The IWC currently consists of 88 member nations, including both whaling nations and nations that have never hunted for whales. Contrary to the express purpose of the Convention, the IWC has become an exclusively conservationist organization that does not base its decisions on scientific principles. A total moratorium on all commercial whaling was decided in 1982 (with effect from the 1986 season), against the advice of the Scientific Committee. This ban was to be the subject of renewed consideration and possible modification not later than 1990, but no modification was made or later, in spite of scientific findings indicating abundance of minke whales. 

There is no longer any willingness within the IWC to change the global moratorium on what is termed commercial whaling. This is the case in spite of the fact that the IWC’s Scientific Committee, at the request of the Commission, has long since developed a Revised Management Procedure (RMP), which was intended to replace the moratorium. Use of the RMP would only set catch limits for those stocks that were capable of withstanding harvesting. The majority of IWC members would like the RMP to be supplemented by the introduction of rules and a regulation governing control and the monitoring of catches before the moratorium is possibly repealed and whaling permitted. A process designed to establish such a body of rules for commercial whaling (Revised Management Scheme – RMS) was started in 1992. Consensus has not yet been reached regarding the content of such rules and regulations, and the process has stranded. 

Norway has always attached great importance to binding international cooperation with regard to the management of whale stocks, in accordance with the principles laid down in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and we have chosen to work so that solutions may be devised within the IWC. Even though the work of the Commission has not been constructive, the work in the IWC’s Scientific Committee has been of considerable importance in respect of the resumption of Norwegian whaling operations. 

NAMMCO (North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission)

The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission was established by the Agreement of 9 April 1992 on cooperation on research, conservation and management of marine mammals in the North Atlantic Ocean. The organization emerged as the result of a maturation process over a period of several years with conferences on the management of marine mammals and a North Atlantic Committee on Marine Mammal Research. The NAMMCO Agreement established a council in which the four parties – the Faeroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland and Norway – are members. The council makes decisions on the management of marine mammal stocks in the North Atlantic area. New members may be admitted provided the four parties agree. 

NAMMCO had its first meeting in 1992. A secretariat was created which has its base in Tromsø, Norway. A Scientific Committee, two Management Committees and a Finance and Administration Committee have also been established. 

Each of the four parties has members on the Scientific Committee. In addition experts from other countries are invited to the meetings of the Committee. The committee bases its work on results from the parties’ own research bodies and on the work in other international research bodies, e.g. the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and the IWC. The Scientific Committee issues a series of publications of high quality. 

One motivation for establishing NAMMCO was that the IWC had failed to observe its administrative obligations. NAMMCO’s expertise in relation to the IWC has not been a problem in practice. NAMMCO has primarily focused on small whales, seals and walruses. In some cases, however, NAMMCO has also provided advice on the management of stocks managed by the IWC. On certain whale species there has been close cooperation between the scientific committees of NAMMCO and the IWC. However, so far NAMMCO has been more of a supplement to the IWC than an alternative. 

NAMMCO has developed into a competent and effective body, and member nations have improved their management of several stocks of marine mammals through their cooperation in NAMMCO. Unlike the IWC, NAMMCO has adopted a control and monitoring regime that covers all catches of marine mammals, including traditional coastal whaling in Norway, catches by Iceland and the Faeroe Islands and hunting by the indigenous people of Greenland. 

One of NAMMCO’s principal tasks is to focus on how marine mammals are affected by changes to the marine environment, and on the interaction between marine mammals and key commercial fish stocks. NAMMCO’s work in this field will help create a basis for managing marine mammals in our areas based on an ecosystem approach. 


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