BERGEN, Norway — In the new documentary film “The Daughter of the Whaler,” filmmaker and journalist Barbro Andersen explores the past and future of Norwegian commercial whaling. The movie revives a broader debate in Norway about the ethics of whaling, even though the arguments for and against the practice have remained the same over the years.
The documentary focuses on Dina Nybø Olavsen, an ordinary 14-year-old girl who lives in the Lofoten Islands, a rural area in the far north of Norway. When viewers first meet her, she is going on a three-day trip with her family to hunt whales. Dina has much to learn about the art of whaling: how to chase, catch and kill a whale; strip the bones; and preserve the dark-cherry-colored meat. During her time on the boat, she also must make an important decision: Is she going to become the next whaler in the family? Her grandfather Olav Olavsen, who has caught 2,000 whales, had a son to carry on the family’s whaling legacy. But Dina’s father had only daughters, and women are rarely seen as whalers. Plus, Dina has her own dreams: She wants to be an actress.
Beyond the gender issues, the documentary raises questions about the traditions of a community that has survived centuries by fishing and hunting along the Norwegian coast, and how it is going to resist the threats to a livelihood. The film also investigates questions about family heritage, knowledge and understanding of nature, as passed down through the generations. And, finally, the film raises questions about the Norwegian government’s involvement in propping up an industry that for the past few decades has had no specific vision or direction, roaming like a ghost in the darkness. The government might see its support of a wild food industry that is closer to organic than the factory farms of much of Europe and the United States as a positive thing, but it is not clear if that involvement is sustainable in the long run.
Norwegians have hunted whales since medieval times, using the whale’s fat as oil for cooking and lighting and its flesh for food. Svend Foyn (1809-94) brought Norwegian whaling into the modern age by pioneering the use of a steam catcher and the development of the harpoon gun and a grenade harpoon. His travels in the Norwegian Sea, where whales were abundant, gave him the idea to create tools to hunt them more efficiently. The grenade head harpoon was a device that exploded inside the whale’s head once it was a foot inside the flesh. The explosion was supposed to cause enough brain damage to kill the whale in a few seconds. The harpoon also prevented the whale from sinking. Foyn’s invention and its improvements meant an increase in the number of whales being caught in a season, from four to 30.
In the film, the family whaling boat, the Brandholmbøen, is also equipped with cannons. “If you manage to hit the whale in the right place, it will die momentarily!” explains Dina’s father, Leif Ole Olavsen, after a discussion about how much the weapons have improved over the years to prevent excessive animal cruelty. “Do you wish to shoot? Do you dare to?” asks the father, trying to better understand if Dina has what it takes to take over the family tradition of hunting whales.
Many Norwegians continue to support whaling. “I am for the use of our natural resources as long as, in the case of whales, the entire animal is used. If it is a sustainable hunting, and, most importantly, if it is killed by methods that do not allow the animal to suffer, it is fine to exploit the resource,” says Synnøve Spangelo who is Norwegian and proud of her heritage and local traditions. She believes Norway’s long history of whaling should be continued. Over the past century, though, the practice has come under attack.
Whaling in the waters off most of northern Norway was prohibited around 1904. The stocks of whales in the Norwegian Sea had declined precipitously, and Norwegian whalers had to find new places to hunt. That led them to discover whale-hunting grounds near Antarctica, and from there they expanded throughout the oceans, improving their ships to operate in any kind of environment, including ice—long the bane of seagoing captains everywhere. During the 1930-31 season, Norwegians killed more than 40,000 whales and produced 3.6 million barrels of oil. Unfortunately, this great catch coincided with the collapse of the market during the Great Depression, which stifled demand.
The International Whaling Commission was created in 1946 to provide proper conservation and management of whale stocks. It began imposing quotas in 1949. The great whaling countries, including Japan, the Soviet Union, the Netherlands and Norway, had to compete for larger shares of the industry. In 1986 an international moratorium on commercial whaling went into effect.
Despite the international rules, two countries continue commercial hunting, Iceland and Norway, where whalers mainly hunt minke whales, a small whale that is largely believed to be abundant in the North Atlantic. For many years, Japan has conducted whaling operations that the government says are scientific research expeditions, not commercial ones, although most of what gets caught ends up for sale to the Japanese public. In March, the International Court of Justice ordered Japan to stop its whaling activities, but the Japanese government has not yet agreed to abide by the ruling.
Norway gets around the IWC’s moratorium by whaling only within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which reaches about 200 miles from its shores. The government is responsible for proper management of the area.
Although Norway has reserved the right to disregard the IWC ban on commercial whaling, the industry is struggling. With the diminishing demand for whale oil and the international moratorium on whaling, the Norwegian government was forced to subsidize local whalers to prevent the industry from dying. According to the Norwegian government’s statistics, in 1963 the subsidy was approximately 17 million Norwegian krones. By 1980 the subsidy had jumped considerably, to about 419 million Norwegian krones. The subsidy covers fuel, transport and storage costs, all to keep the whaling industry afloat.
The government’s motivation is political, according to Truls Gulowsen, the leader of Greenpeace Norway. “Whaling has been strongly symbolic for the Norwegian politicians who would like to show themselves as friends of the coast,” he said in an interview with Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.
One of the oldest and most prevailing arguments about why Norwegians should continue to whale is that Norwegian fishermen see whales as their fishing competitors. In “The Daughter of the Whaler,” Dina tries to explain to her 9-year-old sister, Katrine, the reasons why hunting the minke whales is justified for their family. “We must shoot the whales in order to have something to live on. If we don’t shoot them, they will eat all the fish. We have to kill them in order to keep the balance in nature,” says Dina, repeating what her father, uncle and grandfather have told her. Whales do eat a lot of fish, as Dina notes; an adult orca whale can eat up to 300 herring fish a day.
Of course, Norwegians eat whale, too, as a high-priced delicacy. But the demand for such meat exists in a niche market, and not one that is growing, according to chef Magne Aas. “Whale meat for consumption regularly is only used in the north, where people are not able to raise other types of animals and their food consumption and occupation are dependent on the ocean and its riches. In the southern parts of Norway, whale meat is consumed, primarily, in fine-dining restaurants,” says Aas, executive chef at Scandic Neptun in Bergen.
Most restaurants, though, are extremely selective about their whale steaks, Aas notes. “Unfortunately, high-end restaurants can only use prime cuts. The meat is surrounded by large amounts of fat. That requires the prime cuts to be treated with special care, because if the meat touches the fat or vice versa, it becomes rancid and unusable, which on the other hand drives the prices really high.
“I know about only two processing plants that exist today. We used to have more, but because of the highly skilled personnel that they require and the large amounts of wasted meat, they closed down,” Aas continues. All this means that not many restaurants can offer whale as a main course. Whale meat also tends to be high in toxic heavy metals and cancer-causing organochlorines because of ocean pollution. This also affects consumer demand for the meat.
The Norwegian authorities do allow whalers to export whale products. But even the export market has not yet proved to be the boon that the industry needs. Over the years, the industry has suffered from low whale-catch rates. During the past few years, the government has set quotas hitting almost 1,300, but whalers have not been able to reach anywhere near that number. This year, whalers caught about 600 whales, way below the limit.
And whales have non-food and non-oil uses. Because whales migrate together at certain times of the year, they are an attraction in Norway. Companies along the coast offer orca whale watching tours and excursions, where the very brave can dive with the killer whales. Some enthusiasts are even traveling to Norway during the migration season just to dive with the whales.
Despite the questionable future of whaling in Norway, in the film Dina and her family remain positive. Every whaling season is a new adventure, one that keeps family traditions alive. Dina’s grandfather knows that the industry is slowly dying but is happy to see whales in the Norwegian waters. “It is really good to see such fine whale in the sea under our boat!” he says.
The 800 kilograms of meat that they harvest makes Dina happy as well, since she knows that the whale meat is helping her family survive. By the end of the film, she has not decided whether to continue to whale like all her ancestors, but her story illustrates the positives and negatives of an ancient practice that still continues today.