Whaling has been a controversial issue in recent years and particularly whaling in the Nordic countries has dominated the news with stories of blood baths in the Faroe Islands or the slaughter of a rare hybrid whale in Iceland. There’s an ongoing discussion between Nordic locals and whaling opponents as to whether whaling should be allowed or not.
I’m asked about the topic by my cruise guests quite often and usually, I only answer very briefly, mostly saying that yes, Norway does allow for the hunt of whales, but that I don’t know anyone who actually eats the meat. Thanks to you guys on Instagram, I was asked to write more about the topic in my #nordicinsider column - a topic I would have never considered to write about otherwise!
In this article, I’ll thus give you the detailed rundown of whaling laws and practices in Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, and tell you what I personally think about the issues presented.
*Header image by Rudolf Kirchner
Whaling laws and practices throughout the Nordics
Generally speaking, commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986, making an exemption for indigenous whaling for subsistence. This means that technically, whaling in Greenland and the Faroe Islands should be allowed, while whaling in Iceland and Norway should not be.
The regulations of the IWC only apply to its member states, though, and because Norway officially objected against the ban, the country is currently not obliged to follow the regulations of the IWC. Iceland applied to continue whaling for research purposes at first, but when that wasn’t granted, the country resigned as a member state of the IWC in 1992. Ten years later, Iceland re-joined the IWC with reservations to some of the regulations, and has since caused for debate and disagreement as to whether the country should be allowed to hunt whales or not.
Whaling in Norway and Iceland
In 2016 (the latest record I could find on the website of the IWC at the time of publishing), Norway hunted 591 minke whales, while Iceland hunted 46 minke whales (and no fin whales).
In both countries, the whale meat is either exported to Japan or sold/served domestically - mostly within the tourism industry. Part of the hunted meat is also used to produce animal feeds, particularly on fur farms (in Norway).
Consumption of whale meat today
For two countries that are so persistent to keep their right to pursue commercial whaling, a relatively small percentage of the whale meat that is produced, is actually consumed by locals. According to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), less than 5% of the Norwegian population eat whale meat on a regular basis and although I have yet to stumble upon any actual evidence of this statistic, it is something I have noticed myself.
I don’t know anyone here in Norway who actually eats whale meat. None of my friends have ever served whale meat and neither has anyone in my boyfriend’s family. No work event I ever attended included a lunch buffet with whale meat. Neither am I aware of any traditional Norwegian dishes that include whale.
Whenever I have been exposed to whale meat (except for the supermarket, of course), it’s been at food festivals like SMAK in Tromsø, at the weekly market on Tromsø’s market square, or at restaurants that specialise in “traditional Northern Norwegian cuisine”. In other words, my experience with whale meat in Norway has mostly been in areas that heavily cater to visitors.
The situation is similar in Iceland. In 2015, only 3% of the respondents of a local study said that they buy whale meat 6 times or more often in a year. Apparently, whale meat is as unpopular among the Icelandic population as it is in Norway, as minke whale is mostly eaten by tourists, while fin whale meat is being exported to Japan.
The history of whaling in Norway and Iceland
I guess you would expect whale meat to be deeply rooted in the culture of Norway and Iceland for them to ignore the wishes of the IWC and all of its member states but alas, that is not the case.
Whaling in Norway first started out in Tromsø and then expanded across Northern Norway to Svalbard, where it became quite profitable between the 17th and 18th century. However, the first concern about whaling was already raised in the late 1800s in the region of Finnmark, where unregulated whaling had led to the depletion of the local whale population.
Many Norwegian whalers went to work in Iceland as a response, where they managed to hunt the whales without any bans. Back then, Icelanders apparently believed that hunting minke whale would bring bad luck so until the 20th century, it was mostly Norwegians who hunted whales in Iceland.
In the early 20th century then, Icelanders were afraid that the Norwegians would threaten the overall whale population once again, so a ban was imposed on whaling. Shortly after, in 1935, a new law was established that would only allow Icelanders to hunt whales - in other words, whale hunting in Iceland is less than a 100 years old!
Whaling in Greenland and the Faroe Islands
The history of whaling in Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and thus their legitimation to legally hunt for subsistence, is a different story.
Whaling in Greenland - the past and present
The Inuit of Greenland have been hunting whales since early medieval times. In a country that’s covered by ice for the most part, hunting and fishing were the only means of subsistence along the coast of Eastern and Western Greenland.
Today, the country has a special status under the IWC, which allows whale hunting for subsistence purposes - meaning the whale meat should only be consumed by local communities. However, there has been a discussion about breaches to the rule in recent years in Greenland, as whale meat is also being served to tourists in local restaurants, and souvenirs from whale bones are being sold.
Contrary to the beliefs of the IWC, I personally see Greenlandic whale products as a means of a society trying to express their culture. When I went whale-watching in Nuuk a couple of years ago, I was invited home for dinner by the local tour guide. She said she had just prepared some whale stew and wondered whether I would like to give it a go.
Anyone who knows me personally, knows that I’m a really fussy eater (and have been way before I was diagnosed with an IBD) - especially when it comes to meat. I don’t usually enjoy the way red meat tastes. I just find it way too strong for my liking.
The whale stew I ate in Nuuk, however, was different. I liked it. I ended up with 2 refills - not just to be polite, but because I genuinely enjoyed it. The way I experienced this dinner was for a local to give me an even deeper insight into her culture and the lifestyle of her people, and for this reason, I don’t see why Greenlandic restaurants shouldn’t serve whale meat.
Tourists come to Greenland to explore and understand a country and culture that’s different from most places they’ve seen before. Whale products are deeply rooted in that culture - whether it’s the consumption of meat or the production of amulets from whale bones. Contrary to the way we handle meat in Western countries, at least you can be certain that no part of the hunted animal goes to waste.
Adverts like this one, therefore are very egocentric, in my opinion:
Telling locals that what they’re doing is wrong and that they should stop, is nothing but cultural imperialism of one society trying to tell another that they’re inferior.
The same goes for whaling in the Faroe Islands and how it often is portrayed in foreign media.
The background of whaling in the Faroe Islands
The hunt for whales in the Faroe Islands started roughly around the same time it did in Greenland, when the first Scandinavian settlers arrived to the region. Similarly to Greenland, the Faroe Islands have a special status under the IWC and are allowed to hunt whales for subsistence purposes. The traditional whale hunt, which involves the slaughter of entire groups of whales, has been reported as barbaric by international media in recent years, and activists have been trying to ban whaling in the region.
In Greenland, mostly minke whales are hunted, and in 2016 (again, the latest official numbers of the IWC), a total of 177 whales had been killed. In the Faroe Islands, pilot whales are hunted and the hunt is controlled by the local government:
Despite common belief, whale hunting in the Faroe Islands is not a barbaric tradition but regulated by the government to ensure that the slaughter is being done as fast and humane as possible. The entire local community gathers and helps out, and no meat goes to waste.
However, due to industrialisation and the pollution of our oceans, whale meat has been controversial among Faroese themselves recently, as increased levels of mercury have been found in the meat of whales, but also the meat of sea birds. The local authorities advise certain population groups (mostly family-planning women and children) not to eat whale meat or blubber, while it recommends others to limit the consumption of whale to once a month.
Whaling & Cultural Imperialism
When being asked about my own opinion on the matter, the short version would be: I don’t think that whaling in Norway (or Iceland for that matter) has a good enough right to exist if the meat is only used for export reasons, the production of animal feed and tourism purposes. I just don’t see the point of it.
Then again, as a non-local, I don’t feel like I have the right to point my finger at Iceland - especially considering that their catches are quite low compared to Norway. As a local of the latter, however, I can only say that I find it ridiculous for Norway to invest money to promote whale meat even though there is no (considerable) interest in it among Norwegians themselves.
Looking at Greenland and the Faroe Islands, however, I fully understand and support whaling in this region as it’s deeply rooted in the local culture and the meat is actually being consumed by locals (without having to subsidize it).
Not wanting to brag or present myself as the ultimate insider (which I’m really not), but I think my background has a lot to do with the way I regard whaling in Greenland and the Faroe Islands as well. You see, I hold an MPhil in Indigenous Studies and wrote my thesis about the representation of Inuit culture. My boyfriend is Sami and I’ve lived in Tromsø for 3 years where I’ve experienced discrimination against Norway’s indigenous people by fellow Norwegians more often than I would have liked.
Indigenous peoples’ rights is an issue that I care for and if I have learnt anything during my studies, it would be that judging other cultures by means of the standards of your own culture, is just another form of imperialism.
I won’t go into the specifics as I’m sure I could write an entire dissertation about the topic, but the most important point I would like to raise is this: Don’t judge something (or someone) that you don’t fully understand. Inform yourself first!
There’s this brilliant movie called “The Islands and the Whales” which basically presents the good, bad and ugly about whaling in the Faroe Islands from a local perspective. It features the older generation telling of how things used to be, as well as the younger generation who is concerned about the increased mercury levels of whale meat but at the same time, doesn’t want foreign activists to have the chance to influence their own culture.
It’s available on demand on Vimeo here, and I think the one scene in the movie that shocked me most, was the one where Pamela Anderson (of all people) tells the Faroese to “just become vegetarian”.
If you’ve ever visited any remote part of the Arctic/North Atlantic, you know that this is just not a feasible option. And I’m saying this as a former vegan who, after 2 years, gave up on the lifestyle when she travelled to Norway’s northernmost village to work there for a month.
Farming is either not possible at all in most parts of the Arctic/North Atlantic, or can only be done on a really small scale, as developed in South Greenland and Svalbard in recent years. Traditionally, locals have thus been living on hunting, herding and fishing for hundreds of years. Yes, there are supermarkets everywhere now, but have you actually ever been inside one? Browse the supermarkets in Nuuk and try to figure out what a vegan lifestyle would cost you. Vegetables and fruits all need to be imported. While it’s not only expensive to live a vegan lifestyle up north, it’s also just not healthy enough.
Nordic locals like to spend time outside no matter the weather and temperatures. However, the climate up there is rough and with dark winters comes a lack of vitamin D, due to the region’s northern location on the globe, so it’s vital that people get all the nutrients they need in order to stay healthy.
Traditionally, whale blubber has been an important source of vitamin D for locals. The local food has been considered healthy by locals for generations and instead of trying to force them to eat our (I’m sorry to say this but you know it’s true) crap of antibiotic-stuffed chicken and plastic-wrapped veggies/fruits that have to be imported from halfway around the globe, think about your own eating habits for a second!
How many food items do you eat in a day that are stuffed to the brim with additives, conservatives and E-numbers, which nobody really knows what they are - and which nobody really even cares about? We live in a world where the majority of what we eat is prepared industrially. We are starting to loose a sense for where our food is coming from and believe commercials telling us that low-fat/low-sugar is healthier whereas in reality, you’re only ending up spending more money on the same unhealthy crap.
What you should really be concerned about
Long story short: Who are we to judge the way others choose to eat? And why has traditional food suddenly become so unpopular? Do you really think that industrially-prepared food is better than fresh, local and seasonal food? That the meat of chicken who live in tiny cages their entire short life, is better than the meat of whales who were able to roam the oceans freely?
You know, the thing that annoys me most is that so many people judging whaling are hypocrites. People who enjoy their weekly Sunday roast, but then condemn the consumption of whale meat. Please tell me the difference between a cow/pig/turkey and a whale, because honestly, I don’t see any. As humans we’ve been surviving on meat since we developed as such and just because there are other foods available, doesn’t mean that other foods are necessarily healthier.
I have no problem with vegans - as I said, I lived the lifestyle myself for 2 years - however, I do have a problem with people who think that it’s okay to eat pigs or cows because they’re somehow less worth than other animals, but then don’t think it’s okay to eat whales because somehow, whales are special. Well, the thing is, what pigs are to you (aka livestock), whales are to many locals of the Nordic regions - the only difference is that one of them gets to live freely and one of them has to live in captivity.
And yes, whale meat is becoming more and more unhealthy nowadays because of how we in industrial countries pollute the world. The mercury that is poisoning whale meat doesn’t come from the Faroe Islands themselves. One protagonist of the “The Islands and the Whales” movie said this:
Whaling in the Faroe Islands, and sooner or later probably also in the rest of the Nordics, will come to an end eventually. However, it won’t be because of pressure put on the region from outside, but because of the pollution of our oceans.
Don’t judge others by their way of life if you don’t understand it. Instead, have a look at the way you’re treating the environment and how you could try to preserve it for the generations to come. After all, I don’t think anyone could possibly argue that the hunt of whales which are not endangered, is in any way worse than the pollution of our globe, starting with plastic in the ocean and ending with global warming and melting ice caps.
If we continue the way we do at the moment, it won’t just be whales that suffer. Everything will.