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Norway's whalers defend tradition amid shrinking markets

by Staff Writers
Svolvaer, Norway (AFP) Sept 2, 2008
In the Lofoten Islands, the main base for Norway's whaling industry, hunters insist that their tradition has a future despite decades of criticism -- and reject claims that consumers aren't buying whale meat.

In this cluster of islands nestled within the Arctic circle, the whalers have all returned to their home ports, this year's hunting season having ended on August 31. Their vessels are easily identified by the harpoons perched on the bow and an imposing watchtower that enables them to spot minke whales from afar.

Stocks of minke whale, the smallest of the big whales, number more than 100,000 in the North Atlantic, but the quota was hard to meet again this year, with whalers killing only half of the permitted catch of 1,052 whales.

Since Norway resumed whaling in 1993, six years after an international moratorium was agreed, the hunters have only met their quota once.

They blame the low catch on high fuel prices, bad weather -- still waters are needed to harpoon a whale -- as well as quotas often distributed in regions far out to sea and a crunch in processing and distribution channels.

Greenpeace sees the issue differently.

"The figures speak for themselves: the market for whale meat is non-existent," says Truls Gulowsen of the environmental group's Norwegian branch.

Greenpeace long ago abandoned its spectacular anti-whaling campaigns where its boats went head-to-head in confrontations with whaling vessels.

"We have a better plan: we'll let the market decide. And it will die out," Gulowsen says.

Once a staple of the poor man's diet, whale meat is now almost never found in grocery stores.

But in Svolvaer, a small village in the Lofoten Islands, it has pride of place on restaurant menus where it is served both fried and as carpaccio, often a pleasant surprise for tourists' sceptical palates.

"Our problem is ignorance. A lot of people just don't understand what it is they're opposed to," says Leif Einar Karlsen, a local whaler who left his job as a mechanic 12 years ago to start hunting.

"People don't know that there are dozens of kinds of whales," he adds.

Like Iceland, Norway estimates that stocks are abundant enough to allow a limited quota for commercial whaling.

But the minke whale remains on the list of near-threatened species drawn up by UN agency CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which means it cannot be sold internationally.

"The result of unfortunate and effective lobbying," laments Bjoern Hugo Bendiksen, head of the Norwegian whalers' association.

The son, grandson and brother of a whaler, he harpooned 23 minkes this year.

"A mediocre season," he says.

While one minke whale can yield more than a tonne (1,000 kilogrammes) of meat, the processing plants on the nearby islet of Skrova pay only 30 kroner (3.8 euros, 5.5 dollars) per kilo.

Half of a season's revenue will cover the costs of the boat, while the crew, normally made up of four people, shares the rest.

"Before, whaling used to be a primary source of income. Now it's just a way for fishermen to supplement their income alongside the cod, hake and herring they catch the rest of the year," Karlsen said.

Whaling represents only 20 to 25 percent of overall income nowadays for most of the 30-odd whaling vessels that take part in the hunt in Norway each year.

In that light, whale safaris have become a more profitable business, with lower costs and less conflict. Usually.

"Once a whaler harpooned a whale right in front of us. My passengers, who were German tourists, were horrified. I almost had a heart attack," says Heiki Vester who runs the Ocean Sounds whale safari company.

Greenpeace's Gulowsen insists that "whaling is an industry of the past."

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Whales shedding blubber, Japan study says
Tokyo (AFP) Sept 1, 2008
Japan, under fire overseas for whaling it justifies as research, has released its findings -- whales are losing blubber because ocean resources are growing scarce.

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