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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Norway's Artic Whalers

Air Date: Week of

Simon Dring travels to Norway's Lofoten Islands for a closer look at the local whaling industry. For residents of the islands’ small fishing villages, whaling is a valuable and sustainable part of their livelihood. Local fishermen and their families offer their perspective on new whaling restrictions, anti-whaling groups, negative stereotypes of bloodthirsty whalers, and on the whales themselves.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

This week, the eyes of the world are turned toward Norway and the Winter Olympics. While the games are being played, there will likely be some small, but no doubt vociferous protests heard from environmental activists who object to Norway's decision to resume whaling in defiance of an international ban. The International Whaling Commission prohibits commercial whaling. Norway honored the ban for a while, but then last year, under considerable domestic political pressure, the Norwegian government turned its back on the IWC and told its citizens they could again hunt minke whales, which number over 80,000 in the North Atlantic. For the second of our series on Norwegian whaling, we sent reporter Simon Dring to the far north of Norway.

(Sounds of the sea: ocean waves, seagulls)

DRING: A biting, bitter wind sweeps down from the North Pole and cuts like an ice cold knife through the deserted snow-packed streets of an island fishing village. High above the Arctic Circle, where the pale blue glimmer of midwinter daylight lasts for little more than two hours, the people of Rena are sheltered from the pounding seas of the northeast Atlantic by a towering wall of dark black rock. There's no place better on a night like this than to be crammed into the cheerful warmth of Mariot Bergquist's kitchen, tucking into her Saturday special: a sizzling hot dinner of boiled potatoes and whale meat.

(Cooking sounds, conversation)

M. BERGQUIST: To be honest, it's really very good. And it's worth fighting for, you know.

DRING: They're fighters by nature up here. Hardened fishing folk who eat whale in the same way we might eat bacon and eggs or pork chops. Hard for me to refuse, really, even though Fred, Mariot's husband, makes no secret of the fact he prefers dried cod, mushy peas, and jam. But whale is still her younger son Martin's favorite dish. Well, it could have been elk burgers.

M. BERGQUIST: When you live in with and out [word?] Nature, as we do here, then it's very natural for you to harvest from the nature.

(Continued cooking and serving)

DRING: That's the theme of everybody's argument in villages like Rena, where minke whaling has been a small but important part of the local economy for several generations. And catches of all marine species are strictly monitored. Greenpeace and the other environmental groups maintain the Norwegian government should encourage the whalers to diversify, but the truth is there's little else to do in the Lofoten Islands except fish. And it was Norway's resumption of commercial whaling last year that has given them their best harvest in years. In fact, it saved several of the whalers from bankruptcy.

M. BERGQUIST: I feel more certain now that we are going to manage, that really I'm going to be allowed to stay here.

DRING: The storm of international protests that descended on their heads surprised and dismayed the 1,400 people of Rena. There's only 40 whalers and their families in this village, and 380 people throughout Norway who depend on whaling for a living. But not surprisingly, it's almost impossible to find anybody in these close knit communities who will speak out against whaling. Fred certainly isn't one of them. With his huge, harpoon hands and his rasping, weather-worn voice, he must be everybody's idea of a character out of Moby Dick. He doesn't take kindly to eco-watchers or journalists, but loves talking about whales.

F. BERGQUIST: [Speaks in Norwegian]
M. BERGQUIST [Translating]: Going whaling again was just like coming to heaven. (Laughs)

DRING: The tradition of minke whaling in these islands has certainly been abused in the past, with catches often deliberately exceeding quotas. But rigorous controls now govern the lives of the men who work the Atlantic waters and land their cargoes at the key in Rena. Bjorn Blikfeld is organizer of the High North Alliance, a partly government-funded group formed to promote the fishermen's interest.

DRING: What are they catching at this time of year?
BLIKFELD: They got some extra cod quotas, so it's cod. The long line takes some haddock.

(Fish processing plant)

DRING: Knee-deep in fish heads and innards, Jans Swenson grasps a huge cod, gutting and washing them in seconds as they slither down the chutes into the ice barrels of the fish plant. Jans is one of those who is affected by the gradual regulation of whale hunting in the 60s and 70s, and the complete ban finally imposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1987.

SWENSON: [Speaks in Norwegian]
TRANSLATOR: He is saying that he used to have a boat, with a permission for minke whaling. But, you know, in the early 80s when they started to cut the quotas because of uncertainty about the size of the minke whale stock, then people had to choose, you know, between different kinds of permissions. You weren't allowed to have both the shrimp permission and a minke whaling permission. So he had to give up the minke whaling.

DRING: Even with Norway's decision to ignore the moratorium, it's unlikely fishermen like Jans will ever bring out their harpoons again. While the quotas on most fish are way below the capacity of the boats, 50 tons of cod a season, for example, against a need of 200 to make ends meet, proportionately, the government quotas on the minke whale have deliberately been set even lower.

TRANSLATOR: Norway has obliged itself to use this quota calculation model that is developed by the International Whaling Commission scientific committee. It's a very precautious model.
TRANSLATOR: So quotas, if they increase, they will increase very, very slowly.

(Continued fish processing)

DRING: Put in perspective, with an estimated minke population of 87,000 in the northeast Atlantic and 900,000 worldwide, the 31 whaling boats of the Lofoten Islands, 7 of them from Rena, and other fishing ports down the coast, caught a total of 226 whales last year. It's still good news for whaling families like the Andersens, who could afford a refit to their boat this year, but it also means the protests will continue.

(Boating sounds)

ANDERSEN: This is a new investment.
DRING: It looks like a James Bond device. you have an alarm.
DRING: Why is that?
ANDERSEN: Because there are crazy people in this world. (Laughs)
DRING: So this is because of the protests, you mean.
ANDERSEN: No, because of the terrorists from Paul Watson.

DRING: Paul Watson is from a California-based activist group that specializes in sinking whale boats, rather than just stopping them. As a result, in an island community, where crime is almost unheard-of, all the boats are now fitted with burglar alarms. And some are even kept under 24-hour guard.

(Phone ringing, boat motor)

DRING: The fax machine in the high North Alliance office in Rena is rarely silent. Bjorn Blikfeld not only lobbies on behalf of the whalers, but he also monitors the press from around the world. He accuses Greenpeace of blurring the truth in their reports, and cynically campaigning with a close eye on attracting new membership and fundraising.

BLIKFELD: As Patrick Moore, the former director of Greenpeace Canada, said, you know, is that people won't understand ecology. Therefore, we have to make them save the whales. We have to tell them that whales are good. Good whales, kind whales, faithful whales, it sells better than if you try to tell people the truth: that they are quite stupid, like a cow, for example. And that they are, except for their size, they are not very different from other animals.

DRING: But whether whales are stupid or smart, tasty or profitable, is not the only part of the debate. In the past, many whales were hunted to the verge of extinction before IWC controls were established. Greenpeace will argue that to allow the continuation of commercial hunting in any form will only serve to undermine the ability of the IWC to protect the world's whale stocks.

(Children singing)

DRING: They were all there the night Rena had one of its liveliest parties for years. The whalers and their wives and families. Yes, whalers have children, too, says Mariot Bergquist. Although you wouldn't think so if you read what Greenpeace and some of the other groups are writing about us.

M. BERGQUIST: The whalers are brutes and murderers. Whalers are barbarians. Whalers like to see blood. Whalers are - you know, all the worst things you could say about a human being are said about whalers.

DRING: The eventual recognition of Norway's right to whale has become an overriding point of principle in these islands, as it has with the Norwegian government. The history of whaling here has not always been as honest and romantically traditional as some of the fishermen would like to make out. But some parts of the environmentalist message have been heard. Whaling here will never be the same again, officially sanctioned or not. But it's doubtful that anybody could ever persuade Mariot or Fred or Bjorn or his father or his uncle, and the many others like them, in the remote and rugged beauty of these Arctic lands, that it should not, in some form or other, be a part of their lives in the future.

(Group singing)

DRING: For Living on Earth, this is Simon Dring in the Lofoten Islands.



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