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Image: Peter Flood

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Norwegian whalers turn their sights on humpback and fin whales

Members of the Vestvågøy Fisheries Association, in the Lofoten district of Norway, are demanding a review of whether fin and humpback whales should be hunted in local waters, citing increased numbers of these species in the waters around Bjørnøya and Bjørnøya-Hopen. They speculate that declining seabird numbers could be due to whales competing with seabirds for fish, and claim that hunting these whales could rebalance the local marine ecosystem. The request will be tabled at this week’s annual meeting of the Nordland County Fishermens’ Association where Director of Fisheries, Liv Holmefjord will address the issue of  ‘Resource Management’.

The claim that increased whale numbers puts pressure upon seabirds is a new and maybe rather cynical angle, since for many years, whalers have routinely insisted that whales need to be controlled in order to protect commercially-valuable fish stocks. However, that argument has been refuted by researchers, including Kristin Kaschner and Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, Canada, who mapped fish catches against species which whales are known to eat. Their research demonstrated unequivocally that there is very little overlap with human fisheries because whales largely catch species we don’t target, in areas we don’t fish. In any case, nature has its own checks and balances and research shows that a thriving whale population contributes to keeping fish stocks healthy which will also benefit seabirds and other species dependent upon fish. 

There is also growing support for the concept of whales as ‘eco-system engineers’ and the crucial role they play in maintaining the health not only of our oceans, but our planet as a whole. 

Norway has taken out an ‘objection’ to the IWC’s global whaling ban and therefore is able to set its own whaling quotas, currently taking hundreds of minke whales each season. These hunts are already widely denounced and it is difficult to see how Norway could make a credible case for hunting these species without attracting further international criticism. Fin whales are listed as endangered, whilst a recent decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the US to remove federal protection for North Atlantic humpback whales has been widely denounced as premature by WDC and others, due to the many and ongoing threats faced by this species, including from entanglement, pollution and boat strikes. Similar uncertainty exists over the health of the humpback population in the North East Atlantic, including the waters around Norway. And finally, of course, humpback whales are a favourite and much-loved species amongst whale watchers and have contributed greatly to the global popularity and economic success of whale watching.