You can’t say Spitsbergen is unspoiled. The massacres perpetrated by the Dutch and other European countries since the 17th century made sure that even now the once plentiful Bowhead whale is rarely spotted among these islands in the Arctic. There are beaches here, full of the bleached and weathered skulls and bones of hundreds of slaughtered belugas, and the walrus was almost hunted to local extinction. Still it is the scenic beauty and remaining wildlife that today attracts thousands of tourists to these snow-covered peaks jutting from the cold waters.
You would think that mankind and especially Norway, that governs these isles under the geo-political name of Svalbard, would have drawn lessons from that ignorant, destructive past and that the tourist money would be an extra incentive to protect all that is left…Not so!
There are still hunting seasons here, still arctic foxes are being trapped for their fur and, yes, the whaling continues.
Therefore, it was hardly a surprise when I sailed into Hornsund in the South West of Spitsbergen last month, to find in that bay the whale poachers Ann-Brita and Reinefangst with their murderous harpoons uncovered. Even though it has been almost two decades since Sea Shepherd and the Norwegian whale poachers met steel to steel, that does not mean we do not keep track of what they are up to.
Over the last decade we have seen the number of boats partaking in the slaughter dwindle to 21 licensed vessels this year. Some are giving up because of the lack in demand for whale meat; others saw their ships sunk in their homeports. We witnessed the struggle of the poachers to fill the quotas, variously blaming fuel costs, bad weather and distance to the whaling grounds for their failures. Still Norway has killed almost 10.000 whales since the moratorium came into effect in 1986. Although Norway is a member of the IWC, it does not abide by that body’s decisions. In 1982, it filed a formal objection against the proposed ban on commercial whaling. The insane rules of this ineffective and corrupt organization basically say that if you don’t like their rulings, you can object and just on the basis of that objection you are not bound by these rulings. Norway has also exempted itself from the trade bans imposed by another ineffective and corrupt organization, namely CITES, and exports whale meat to Japan.
Norway tried their hand at Japanese-style, scientific whaling for a brief period before returning in 1993 to overtly commercial whaling. They peaked in 2005 with 639 whales and last year took the lives of 533 animals. The Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal affairs has set the quota for the 2012 season that lasts from May 1st to August 30th, again at 1286 Minke whales.
Besides ignoring the moratorium on commercial whaling, Norway sets much higher catch limits than even the IWC’s ‘scientific’ calculations (A system ominously called Revised Management Procedure (RMP)) allow for.
On top of that, Norway has allowed catches to be concentrated in areas most convenient for the poachers, especially the area West of Spitsbergen. Still the poachers fail to meet even half of their quota. So to placate them even further and in complete disregard for the fate of the whales the government has this year merged two separate whaling zones to make it more cost-effective for the poachers to concentrate their killing business on the waters around Spitsbergen.
The whaling apologists in the Norwegian government have thus made a joke of the already much prostituted word ‘sustainability’. Of course, if that cliché doesn’t hold up there are always other excuses, like blaming whales for eating the fishermen’s fish. Haven’t we heard similar cries from the Japanese whaling industry, from the seal and sea lion clubbers in Newfoundland and Namibia, from the dolphin killers in Taiji, from the fishery agencies in Chile and from the officials at the Bonneville dam, to draw the attention away from the real problem: overfishing by man?
Just as preposterous are the tiresome, old arguments of tradition and culture, used around the world to justify brutality and cruelty and to repeat, over and over again, the mistakes of the past. One official even claimed that Norwegian whaling could be considered aboriginal. Nothing on the diesel-powered, steel ships, full of modern,
electronic equipment and with explosive-grenade harpoons on their bow that I met in these waters, struck me as aboriginal or traditional.
As everywhere where senseless slaughter takes place, you can smell the greed, the stubbornness, the misplaced national pride and the willful ignorance. It should not be tolerated in the Europe of today.