Killing traditions

A whale and a calf being loaded aboard a factory ship, the Nisshin Maru.

We have all heard it “Whaling is bad!”, but few know why it’s SO bad. Now, I’m in no way a vegan, or even vegetarian. I eat meat, and I usually enjoy it. But I cannot, in any way, support the whaling industry my country is involved in and what it does to both whale and human populations.

The international Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded in 1946 with the purpose to conserve whales and regulate the whaling industry. Their task is to monitor and regulate the ocean’s whale populations and put up measures to help conserve whales, such as the 1982/83 moratorium against commercial whaling. This moratorium was put in place as a measure to prevent the extinction of whales as we saw the populations of several species dwindle when hunting became more efficient.

Norway adhered to the moratorium put down by the IWC until 1993 when commercial whaling was legalized under Norwegian laws again. The reasons for continuing whaling were said to be because Norway’s number one prey among whales, the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), could be sustainably harvested with the appropriate measures put in place. Japan is still whaling certain species under what is often called a scientific loophole in the IWC moratorium. Japan gets to hunt a certain quota of whales for research purposes, then they sell the leftover meat and blubber for human consumption. Iceland used to operate under the same rules as Japan, but in 1992 they withdrew from the IWC and today they are hunting for minke whales and fin whales in the arctic waters surrounding Iceland. Pilot whales are killed for consumption during “the Grind” in the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands used to belong to the kingdom of Norway, but since 1814 have been under Danish rule. But even though the Faroe Islands are a part of Denmark, they do not belong to the European Union and therefore do not yield to European whaling laws. The tradition of the Grind goes back hundreds of years; in fact the Norwegian name for pilot whales is actually grindhval, the whale hunted during the Grind. The Faroe Islands hunt pilot whales under aboriginal subsistence, which means that it is a part of their cultural heritage and is not industrialized or exported, hence legal in international matters.

The gory side of whaling

Back in the “good ol’ days” they used to harpoon whales by hand from small boats before they tied the whale to a bigger boat and let it bleed out or drown. Luckily we have come a long way since then when it comes to hunting whales. We still use harpoons, but nowadays they’re fired from a cannon and the tip is loaded with a small explosive charge to make sure the animal dies right upon impact. If you can hit the head that is. If you miss the head while cannon-harpooning an animal, that is bobbing up and down in the water, you might blow out a piece of the animal’s interior, leaving it for a slow an agonising death before you can recharge for the kill-shot. At least the animal had a chance to get back at the guys harpooning from small rowing boats. In that way the playing field used to be level at least.

While doing research for this article I wondered about why people generally were against whaling, and what I found after trolling forums and discussions online is that most people see the hunting practices as their main concern. They see videos and pictures of whales swimming with harpoons in their bodies, and bloody carcasses on the deck of a whaling ship being gutted by men in wool sweaters and rubber boots. So if hunting practices and sustainability issues were handled and made the whaling industry “cleaner”, we might see an upswing in peoples acceptance for whaling like any other source of wild game for food.

There are on the other hand other reasons why we should stay away from whale meat and blubber for human consumption, and it comes to us in the form of chemistry. Let’s have a look at the food chain leading up to the whales and some of the anthropomorphic disasters that might be hiding inside the whale’s interior.

Sea food, it’s good for you!

In May 2014 Japan rejected minke whale meat coming from Norwegian whaling because of the detection of high levels of the organochloride dieldrin. Dieldrin is a compound that has been used (and still is in some places) in insect control. It binds to soil particles, which makes it susceptible for leaking in to ground water and further in to the oceans. There it’s picked up by tiny creatures which carry the insecticide up the food chain where it is ultimately stored in the whale’s blubber due to its lipid soluble character. Yep, it stores in fat, and whales are about as fat as they come.

In laboratory tests Dieldrin has shown abnormal growth of the liver in rats, while observations of an increase of liver cancer in the people who work in production of the chemical has been made. Now that’s exactly what you’d love to hear about the fresh sea food we’re boasting about, right? Nothing says healthy like the potential of a huge liver filled with tumors.

Okay, so that’s minke whale. They eat small cray fish which they filter out of the ocean, so it’s not a surprise that they accumulate some chemicals as “bycatch”. The other whales should be alright to eat then, as long as they are sustainably harvested? Well…  in a research article published in Environmental Science & Technology in 2003, the researchers from the University of Hokkaido found that red meat from several species of cetaceans contained between 160-200 times the permitted levels of mercury in marine foods in Japan. A related article shows that mercury was also found in high concentrations in cetaceans stranded on the shores of the Adriatic Sea in Croatia, showing us that this is a possible global issue and not a strictly Japanese one.

Mercury, like Dieldrin, can cause serious health problems in humans. The thing about mercury is that it not only lipid soluble, but can also in some forms be water soluble. This means that it can cause problems in more than one area of the human body. Mercury poisoning can irritate the gut and lead to kidney failure, as well as a string of neurological problems. And you kinda’ need your kidneys on a daily basis, you know, to clean your body on the inside.

Whale meat could just be a convenient way to kill yourself slowly. If you’re not in to that whole “live fast, die young” thing, but still want to make sure you control your own agonizing death by cancer, kidney failure, liver damage or just neurological breakdown, then eating whale on a regular basis may be your solution.

Why is still a thing?

For more than ten years’ Norwegian whalers have struggled to fill their quotas, with some years only being able to catch a third of their allowance. Even though the whaling industry cannot seem to hit their production goals, they struggle with getting rid of their spoils. In 2014, a year when Norwegian whalers managed to catch 736 whales out of their 1286 quota, they actually had to sell off thousands of kilos to the fur-production industry as feed. So, first of all the whalers can’t find enough minke whales, which MIGHT be an indication of failing population. There is no recent research done on the subject that supports this claim, but there are several scientists and conservationists who believe that minke whales are in decline due to the excessive hunt of females and pregnant and breeding individuals. Second, the whalers cannot get rid of the meat and blubber from the hunt. They actually have to sell it to an equally loathed industry, fur production, to get rid of their product. This does not exactly contribute positively to their already poor reputation. All in all, it’s a failing industry on every front.

Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Japan are continuing to commercially hunt vulnerable whales despite the ban put in place by the IWC in 1986. The IWC and several non-profit groups have advocated for the stopping of whaling by Norway and Iceland on several occasions. Louie Psihoyos and former dolphin trainer Richard O’Barry shed light on the Japanese dolphin hunt in 2009 with their movie “The Cove”. While the activist group Sea Shepherd is actively trying to stop the slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands by getting physically involved. To this day, whaling is still a thing in all these countries, and countries like the United States and China still import whale meat and blubber despite the controversy.

Norway’s long cultural connection to the coast and the ocean is often used as the excuse for why whaling is still going on. According to the official website of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, whaling goes back to the ninth century and is therefore an important cultural heritage. This seems to be nothing but a feeble “one trick pony” justification which can be used for almost any misbehavior by a government. If the Aborigines in Australia, the Sami people of Scandinavia, or the Native Americans are hunting cetaceans on a small scale with traditional methods, sure, I’ll support their cultural heritage. But when it’s industrialized by a nation, that particular excuse loses all validity and becomes a national embarrassment.




Joe Kristoffer Partyka
About Joe Kristoffer Partyka 12 Articles
Joe is something of an odd crossover between the world of natural sciences and the liberal arts. After completing a BSc in conflict history from the University of Oslo, Joe transferred into the world of natural sciences. First he studied for his BSc in Biology at the same university, and later he completed his MSc in tropical ecology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences working with crocodiles in Belize. Joes main interests are mostly related to large predators, their behavior, interactions with humans, and anything relating to their biology and physiology. Basically, if it’s big and potentially dangerous, Joe finds it interesting. Luckily all his interests came together as he now works with mediation of the interhuman conflicts in Norway, so called human-predator conflict, as a predator consultant and communications professional.
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