Hunting in Norway: whales, moose & reindeer
Norway’s whaling is at least partially justified by invoking the Vikings, but controversy remains
Judith Gabriel Vinje
The controversial whaling season is over in Norway. More than 720 whales were harpooned in the most deadly hunting season since Norway began defying an international ban on whaling in 1993.
According to the Independent of London, the catch is less than Norway’s self-imposed annual quota of about 1,200, noting that the Norwegian government claims the four-month hunt is only for the “protection and sustainable harvesting of marine resources.”
Whaling defenders point out that the whale meat sold in Norway comes from the minke whale, which they say is a very abundant non-endangered species. “It’s like hunting white-tail deer,” noted one fan.
But the huge amount of minke meat isn’t selling well in Norwegian supermarkets these days. Reportedly, contemporary Norwegians show little appetite for whale. On the other hand, one Swede who regularly drives to Norway just to purchase whale notes that: “It tastes good, like wild game such as moose and deer with a hint of beef.”
Some whale meat is exported to Japan, which was ordered to end its own whale hunts in the Antarctic by the UN earlier this year.
Norway claims the commercial slaughter of minke whales is necessary because they are a threat to fish stocks. Anti-whalers counter that over-fishing, climate change, and other environmental factors are the cause of the decline in fisheries, not whales.
Anti-whaling activists have staged protests in Norway, and have committed acts of sabotage, including sinking whaleboats off Lofoten. Defenders of whaling claim that it is part of Nordic tradition, dating back to the Viking Age.
But that is disputed. Whaling as an industry got its start in the 1860s when Svend Foyn, a Norwegian shipping magnate, invented the grenade-tipped harpoon. Norway soon surged to the top of the world’s whaling nations.
“Save the whales” campaign
Commercial minke whaling dates back only to the 1930s in Norway. In the mid-70s a campaign began to “save the whales.” In 1986 the International Whaling Commission issued a ban on commercial whaling. Oslo defied it. Norway and Iceland are the only countries to commercially hunt whales.
But what about those who argue that whaling is part of Norway’s heritage, dating back to Viking times?
Vikings probably did not hunt whales on the high seas. The sagas tell tales of arguments over who had rights to a beached whale carcass. In the harsh days of early Iceland’s settlement, the meat provided by a stranded whale could feed a starving community. And from the whale bone, items such as combs, needles, pins, and board games were made.
The Vikings did introduce techniques for cutting off the escape of small whales in fjords, but their hunting efforts were geared toward wild boars, bears, deer, moose/elg, and seals—all hunted on land with bow and arrow, and spears.
And of course, reindeer. Wild reindeer have roamed Norway since the ice retreated 10,000 years ago. Hunters followed them as they migrated between seasonal grazing lands.
It wasn’t long before the early Norwegians started hunting on skis, but in 1274 the Norwegian Code of Law restricted this method because it was too easy, and herds of reindeer were being wiped out.
Almost half the wild reindeer in Norway today live on the Hardangervidda mountain plateau.
Hunting is still a part of Norwegian life for many. And there’s no opposition here. According to Oslo-based writer Trond Woxen, who often visits his mountain hytte, “Hunting in the ‘wilds’—which is most of Norway—is a somewhat necessary endeavor, as an overpopulation of moose/elg and the other two types of deer can be detrimental to crops and fruit trees.” (The moose/elg is Norway’s national animal, and nothing at all like the North American elk).
“Most areas are privately owned,” Woxen explains, adding that farmers usually own vast tracts of forest land along with their crop areas. “They rent these out for a good price, so it isn’t exactly cheap to hunt in Norway.” But “up in the mountains the area is free and there are no owners to pay.”
In Norway, all game is protected unless otherwise specified in the Wildlife Act, and hunting permits are required. There are only about 50 bears left in the country, and these can only be killed in self-defense or hunted with special permission, according to Woxen.
Norwegian hunters have a code: “As hunters the one thing we must all keep in mind is it is our duty to dispatch our game quickly and humanely,” notes one hunter in an Internet blog.
Hunting of course has its dangers for humans as well. Last year, a Norwegian moose hunter accidentally shot and wounded a senior citizen in a nearby cabin, who was sitting on the toilet. Fortunately he survived.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.