Norway's extensive coastline has provided ideal shelter and breeding grounds for migrating whales for hundreds and possibly, thousands of years. For a long time, whales have been an important resource for Norwegians and they are deeply entrenched in Norway's history. Norway only came to prominence as a whaling nation during the late 19th century and this was largely due to two major Norwegian inventions. Further innovations led to the expansion of Norwegian whaling activities all around the globe and, most importantly, Antarctica. While new technologies increased efficiency, they also led to a rapid reduction in whale numbers and Norwegian whaling enterprises in Antarctica began to decline during the mid 20th century. In 1986 The International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling but Norway continued to hunt minke whales without IWC approval. Norway remains defiant towards global concerns about declining whale populations and are currently attempting to overturn the 1986 ban.
The numerous fjords, bays and islands along the Norwegian coastline have provided migrating whales with ideal shelter and breeding grounds for centuries. Thousands of years ago these coastal waters were alive with fish, seals and whales, particularly in the northern region (Hagen 1967: 14,16). Archaeological evidence reveals that whales provided food and resources for early humans but this is largely attributed to scavenging (Ommanney 1971: 62; Eblen & Eblen 1994: 816).
It is difficult to trace the origins of whaling, as technologies for hunting and killing whales varied according to location. Different whales were hunted by different groups of people using different primitive technologies (Eblen & Eblen 1994: 816). Early whaling often involved "no more than driving ashore shoals of the smaller kinds" (Matthews 1968: 94). There is some conjecture about when humans began hunting whales. In northern Norway there are cave pictures of Neolithic Age showing porpoise hunting probably dating from about 2200B.C., and in kitchen middens of even earlier date the romains of whales have been found, and stone harpoon heads. (Ommanney 1971: 70)
Harpoons, gaffs and other tools found in northern Norway, provide further evidence of whale hunting around 1000BC (Hagen 1967: 74). Bone remnants at the site also reveal a diet of "fish, fowl, seal, whale and reindeer" (Hagan 1967: 133).
Literature also provides evidence of whaling. A book written in the 9th Century describes the activities of a Norseman named 'Ottar' who was "(f)ishing, whaling, and walrus hunting" (Larsen 1948: 74). Most of the early literature on whales comes from Scandinavia and Iceland, "the chief being the Norwegian Speculum Regale, written about the middle of the thirteenth century" (Matthews 1968: 18-19). It reveals that right whales were actively hunted and eaten during this time: "when it is caught and its intestines opened, nothing unclean is found in its stomach", "it has no teeth, and is a fat fish and well edible." (Matthews 1968: 19). Reflecting the prevalent ideas in Scandinavian folklore at the time, the Speculum Regale differentiated between 'good' whales: "whales that are helpful to people" and 'bad' whales: "whales that destroy ships and men" and "are not edible" (Matthews 1968: 19). Scandinavians referred to Fin whales (rorquals) as 'fish-drivers' due to their belief that they aided fishermen by herding schools of herring, and other fish, into shore. Consequently, when Norwegians began to hunt rorquals during the late 19th Century, it inevitably created conflict between the whalers and fishermen (Matthews 1968: 19).
Early whaling was limited to whales that remained within a short distance of the shore or ice edge, such as right, bowhead, humpback and gray whales. "Catchability was determined less by the animal's size than by its swimming speed, aggressiveness, diving abilities, and buoyancy once dead" (Eblen & Eblen 1994: 817). The Whaling Industry began by hunting the right whale, known as Nordkaper to the Scandinavians (Matthews 1968: 96). While the Norwegians continued to hunt whales, it was the Basques (who had learned their skills from Norsemen) who developed the first whaling industry in Europe and they maintained their monopoly from the 12th to the late 16th century. This inevitably declined with the subsequent fall in the number of Biscay Right whales. During this time, the Greenland Right whale (bowhead) was hunted by Icelanders who had also learnt their craft from Norwegians (Ommanney 1971: 70,73). It was this whale that now became the focus for the "great whaling industry which commenced in Spitzbergen waters" (Matthews 1968: 70).
Large numbers of Greenland Right whales were sighted around Spitzbergen during the 16th century. Whaling industries soon began to flourish in the area and by mid 17th century, Basque, Dutch, Spanish, German and English fleets had set up industries on Spitzbergen, Bear and Jan Mayen Islands (Matthews 1968: 98). Norway's participation was minimal, possibly due to the country's economic situation. As a result, "whaling in Norwegian waters came to be the monopoly of companies wholly controlled by foreigners" (Larsen 302). The Dutch soon dominated the industry and on Spitzbergen they established a large whaling station and town which they named Smeerenburg ("Blubber Town"). This town operated from around 1614 to 1660 and had an estimated 1000-2000 inhabitants (Norsk Polarinstitutt 1987: 5,7,8). While Norway's participation in the industry was negligible, a large number of Norwegians (who were highly sought after) were employed on many of the foreign fleets (Larsen 1948: 302; Polarinstitutt 1987: 106).
The Dutch continued to dominate northern whaling until the industry began to decline around 1798. Whales, once prolific in the coastal waters around Spitzbergen, now faced extinction. Whaling activities moved further west to Greenland, the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay, where many ships combined whaling and sealing. During the 19th century, Scandinavian ships concentrated on sealing as their main trade (Matthews 1968: 115-116). This soon changed in the latter half of the century, when Norway began to emerge as a dominant force in the whaling industry.
Whale oil and whalebone were valuable commodities in the 19th century (Frost 1978: 26). The whaling industry continued to revolve around the right, sperm and grey whales and as these became scarce, whalers began to focus their attention on the rorquals (Blue and Fin whales), "especially the Norwegians, along whose coasts herds of them passed unmolested every year". These had previously been considered the 'wrong' whales to hunt as they were fast swimmers and their carcasses sank and could not be towed (Ommanney 1971: 94). Two major Norwegian inventions; "the deck-mounted harpoon cannon ... and the engine-driven catcher vessel", overcame these problems and led to the advent of modern whaling and, ultimately, Norway's domination of the industry (Eblen & Eblen 1994: 817).
Svend Foyn was born in the whaling town of Tonsberg. In 1863 he built the first steam whale-catcher named "Spes et Fides", or "Spisse" to the Norwegians, and in 1868 he invented the modern harpoon gun (Ommanney 1971: 94-95). The harpoon gun was mounted on the bow of a small steamer and when the whale was hauled to the surface compressed air was pumped into its abdomen in order for the carcass to be towed ashore (Matthews 1968: 192; Ommanney 1971: 96). These technologies led to a new era of mechanised slaughter that devastated not only the rorqual populations, but whale populations around the world (Ommanney 1971: 96).
At first, Norwegian whalers successfully used the new technologies along their northern coast; in the Lofoten Islands, Tromso and Finmark. Their catches rose from about a hundred whales a year to over two thousand in 1896, and stations opened in Iceland, the Shetlands, the Hebrides and the Faroes and, a year later, in Newfoundland. (Ommanney 1971: 96-97).
Fishing communities in Norway now saw whaling as a threat to their livelihood; due to the long held belief that rorquals drove schools of fish into shore. This resulted in a law being passed in 1904 that prohibited whaling along the coast of Norway for 10 years; forcing whaling companies to look further afield (Larsen 1948: 517; Ommanney 1971: 97). "In the 1890s and early 1900s, this "radiation" of Norwegian enterprise reached literally around the world" (Eblen & Eblen 1994: 817-818), with whaling stations established in Africa, South and North America, Australia, Spain and Japan (Eblen & Eblen 1994: 817-818; Matthews 1968: 192). By early 20th century, other nations had entered the industry and whale numbers declined to such an extent that "whaling had almost ceased in the northern hemisphere". Norwegian whaling companies now began to turn their attention to Antarctica (Ommanney 1971: 97).
Norwegians had in fact been searching for new whaling grounds in the Antarctic since the late 19th century (Derry 1979: 298). In 1892, while sealing in the Antarctic, Captain Larsen, on the Norwegian whaling ship 'Jason', saw the potential for whaling in the area (Matthews 1968: 194). It was not until 1904 that the first whaling station was established on South Georgia Island (Matthews 1968: 194) and by 1911, another seven whaling stations were also established on the island. Initially, the industry centered around right and Humpback whales but declining numbers forced whalers to go further afield in search of rorquals (Blue and Fin whales) (Ommanney 1971: 98). It became increasingly difficult to find suitable sites for shore stations and the British Government was also reluctant to grant more leases for their establishment. This dilemma was solved when "the resourceful Norwegians made a new invention, the floating factory" (Matthews 1968: 194).
Floating factories began operating at Spitzbergen in 1903 and were later used in the Antarctic and elsewhere (Eblen & Eblen 1994: 818). Factory ships moored in sheltered bays in order for flensing to be carried out undisturbed by waves (Matthews 1968: 198; Ommanney 1971: 13). "(T)he whales were cut up in the water alongside the ship; the blubber was hoisted in and the oil boiled out on board". The oil was then carried home in the ship that produced it (Matthews 1968: 198). The abundance of whales in the Antarctic led to a huge amount of waste. "Only the blubber was used and the 'skrotts', as the stripped carcasses were called, were cast adrift in the harbour" and eventually "floated ashore to rot on the beaches" (Ommanney 1971: 13). Regulations were subsequently drawn up to minimise wastage and limitations were placed on hunting whales with calves, as well as the number of boats per station (Ommanney 1971: 13).
Pelagic whaling began with the invention of the stern slipway by Captain Sorlle in 1925. Whales could now be hauled up on deck for flensing, (Eblen & Eblen 1994: 818; Matthews 1968: 206) allowing factory ships to operate at sea. This gave them a huge advantage; they were now able to follow the whales into the open ocean where they were immune from regulations and territorial limits (Ommanney 1971: 12,14). Norwegian ships were soon modified to incorporate the slipway and "The Vikingen and Terje Viken were the first two specially built factory ships to arrive in the Antarctic" (Ommanney 1971: 14). During 1930-1931, there were 42 pelagic factories in Antarctica (Matthews 1968: 210) and "(m)ost of these ships, were, like the shore stations, owned, managed and manned by Norwegians" (Ommanney 1971: 15). During the same period, over 40,000 whales were killed and an average of 30,000 from 1934 onwards (Ommanney: 1971: 99).
Pelagic whaling led to a dramatic decrease in the rorqual population in Antarctica. In the 1930s there were approximately 250,000 Fin whales and this number declined to around 50,000 in the early 1960s. Blue whales declined from 150,000 in the 1930s to between 1,000 and 3,000 in the early 1960s (Matthews 1968: 71). As a result, the hunting of Blue and Humpback whales was prohibited in 1963 and whalers turned their attention to Sei whales in the region (Ommanney 1971: 15, 258-259). Pelagic whaling was so efficient that it ultimately led to the industry's demise (Matthews 1968: 206). Norway's supremacy continued until the mid 20th Century, (Larsen 1948: 520; Ommanney 1971: 96) when increasing whale scarcity led to Norwegian fleets being sold off to Japanese companies (Matthews 1968: 210). By 1969 there was only one Norwegian factory ship operating in the Antarctic, along with 3 Japanese and 3 Russian. At this time, whale meat had become "a more important commodity than whale oil" (Ommanney 1971: 22).
Another type of whaling was established during the early 1930s: "the 'small-whale fisheries' carried on by the Norwegians off the coasts of Norway off Spitzbergen, Bear Island, in the Barents Sea and across the seas to Iceland and Greenland" (Matthews 1968: 210). This industry involved small processing ships and the main quarry was minke whales, which were largely sought after for their meat. Around 2,000 minke whales were killed each season and during the 1950s the numbers reached around 4,000 in some years.
In 1966 the production was nearly 4,000 tons of meat and a little less than 2,000 tons of blubber; of the meat, 1,700 tons were prepared for human consumption, and the rest was sold as food for fur farms or for canning as pet food. (Matthews 1968: 210).
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 in order to protect whales from over exploitation and possible extinction (Ommanney 1971: 18; Eblen & Eblen 1994: 818). In 1986, against protests from Norway, Iceland and Japan, a ban was placed on commercial whaling by the IWC. Iceland subsequently withdrew from the IWC in 1992 and "Norway announced its intention to resume whaling for minke whales in the North Atlantic in 1993, with or without the IWC's approval" (Eblen & Eblen 1994: 818). At a meeting of the IWC in Adelaide this year, Norway and Japan attempted to overturn the 1986 ban in order to resume commercial whaling (ABCNEWS 2000: May & July). Against strong environmental opposition "Norway, which plans to kill 655 minkes this year, are pushing also for a resumption of commercial whaling" (ABCNEWS 2000: July).
Norway's defiant attitude 'flies in the face' of concerns echoed around the globe. While Norway's struggle for independence may have reinforced this extremely insular attitude, (also reflected in Norway's refusal to join the European Union) it shows little regard for the views and concerns of other nations, and ironically, for future generations.
Initially whales were hunted for subsistence in Norway; as they were in many other countries. While Norwegians were known for their sea-faring expertise, they did not participate fully in the whaling industry until the late 19th century. Two major Norwegian inventions led to Norway's domination of the whaling industry; which lasted until mid 20th century. The success of pelagic whaling, instigated by the Norwegians, led to such a rapid decline in whale populations, that commercial whaling was eventually banned in 1986. Nevertheless, Norway, like Japan, continue to catch minke whales and are currently pushing for the resumption of commercial whaling. While Norway has benefited enormously from commercial whaling in the past, it refuses to take responsibility for whale populations in the future and continues to defy the vast majority of countries who express a different view.
ABCNEWS.com 2000, Whaling Nations Want Ban Ended, St. Georges, Grenada, 2th May.
ABCNEWS.com 2000, Japan, Norway Move to End Whaling Ban, Adelaide, Australia, 5th July.
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Frost, S. 1978, Whales and Whaling Volume 1, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.
Hagen, A. 1967, Norway, Thames and Hudson, London.
Larsen, K. 1948, A History of Norway, Princeton University Press, Princeton.
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Norsk Polarinstitutt, 1987, Smeerenburg Seminar, Norsk Polarinstitutt, Oslo.
Ommanney, F.D. 1971, Lost Leviathan, Hutchinson of London, London.