Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of International Ban Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whaling, Norway resumed the practice in 1993, arguing that evidence pointed to an abundance of minke whales in the North Atlantic.

Summary of Event

Norway has a rich and venerable whaling tradition. Four-thousand-year-old Norwegian rocks are etched with pictures of men killing whales and dolphins. Subsistence whaling in the North Atlantic was probably developed and spread by the Norse. Although the Basques around the Bay of Biscay in Spain and France are generally credited with the invention of commercial whaling, they probably learned whaling techniques from the Norwegians. Modern whaling technology is also based on Norwegian ingenuity. The harpoon gun, the explosive harpoon, and the factory ship are all Norwegian inventions. Norway, whaling Whaling;international ban [kw]Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of International Ban (1993) [kw]Whaling in Defiance of International Ban, Norway Resumes (1993) [kw]International Ban, Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of (1993) [kw]Ban, Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of International (1993) Norway;whaling Whaling;international ban [g]Europe;1993: Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of International Ban[08480] [g]Norway;1993: Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of International Ban[08480] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;1993: Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of International Ban[08480] [c]Animals and endangered species;1993: Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of International Ban[08480] [c]Trade and commerce;1993: Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of International Ban[08480] Fleischer, Luis Bridgewater, Peter Hammond, Philip Brundtland, Gro Harlem Walløe, Lars

Norway also pioneered accountability and management in the whaling industry. In the 1920’s, Norway set up the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics Bureau of International Whaling Statistics to publish reports on the numbers of whales taken each season. In 1946, Norway was instrumental in establishing the International Whaling Commission International Whaling Commission (IWC) to oversee whaling in such a way that whales would be conserved and the future of whaling ensured. Norway contributed significantly to whaling and to its management; along with other whaling nations and the IWC, however, Norway was slow to recognize the effect of the commercial practice on whale populations. As a result, many species were reduced to population sizes dangerously near extinction.

Early in its history, the IWC was essentially a “whalers’ club.” Despite the organization’s dual mission—to protect whale populations and to support the whaling industry—the conservation of whales always took a backseat to the whaling nations’ desire to hunt whales. Catch limits were always set far above the limits suggested by the admittedly meager scientific information. In some years, the limits were set so high that the whalers were unable to reach them. Even this warning was ignored by whalers and the IWC.

The IWC gradually became primarily a whale conservation organization, however, as the world’s environmental consciousness grew; as studies on whale brain size, songs, and other sounds sometimes interpreted as languages suggested that the animals had substantial intellectual abilities; and, perhaps most important, as some member countries ceased whaling because of declining whale populations. This shift occurred in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s. Some IWC member nations, Norway among them, resisted the shift. Because of the low limits the IWC wanted to set for the 1959-1960 whaling season, Norway and the Netherlands withdrew from the commission and set their own limits for that season. The IWC set no limits for the next two seasons (1960-1961 and 1961-1962) in the hope that Norway and the Netherlands would rejoin the commission. In the three whaling seasons from 1959 to 1962, the catch in Antarctic waters fell far short of quotas. Norway rejoined the commission in 1960, and the Netherlands rejoined in 1962.

Despite the whalers’ inability to reach their self-imposed quotas, and despite much lower quotas recommended by the IWC’s Scientific Committee, which had been set up in 1961, the 1962-1963 IWC quota for Antarctic whales was set only a little lower than the unfilled quotas of the preceding years. Again, the actual catch fell far short of the quota. As a result, Norway and some other nations began to reduce their Antarctic whaling efforts. Quotas were subsequently reduced dramatically to reflect the estimates of the Scientific Committee. Over the next decade, the commission’s emphasis shifted to conservation of whale stocks, culminating in a 1982 moratorium on whaling. The moratorium became fully functional in 1986 and allowed exceptions only for scientific research and for indigenous cultures for which whaling was an aboriginal activity.

Although collecting information on whale populations and predicting sustainable yields for a stock was more an art than a science, most whale observers believed that stocks grew appreciably after the cessation of whaling. In 1992, the IWC’s Scientific Committee suggested that minke whale Minke whales populations in the Antarctic and in the North Atlantic had grown large enough to sustain some whaling. The IWC refused to follow the suggestion, however, continuing its policy of disregarding science in decisions relating to whaling (although in this case reversing the direction of discrimination). The commission also refused to declare a quota under a revised management procedure set up by the Scientific Committee.

In response, Iceland withdrew from the commission and announced its intent to renew whaling activities. Japan Japan;whaling continued to carry out research whaling, which many observers considered to be a cover for commercial whaling. Norway also remained involved in scientific whaling and produced its own quota for minke whales in the North Atlantic. At the 1993 meeting of the IWC, Norway declared its intention to resume hunting minke whales, setting a quota of 296 whales for that year. International response was intensely negative. Members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Sea Shepherd Conservation Society attempted to block Norway’s whaling by placing their boats (and bodies) between the whalers and their prey. Many groups, including Greenpeace Greenpeace (which had invented the Sea Shepherd tactic), encouraged trade sanctions against Norway. Norway nevertheless took 226 whales in 1993 and set a quota of 301 for 1994.


Many considered the struggle for the conservation of whale populations to be a model for resource conservation in general. The IWC ban and Norway’s resistance highlighted three factors that often restrict the making of optimal conservation decisions: First, scientific evidence usually does not suggest irrefutable conclusions; second, moral and ethical considerations enter into the decision-making process and make reaching a consensus even more difficult; and third, given economic and political constraints, international (and national) organizations are often not free to act on even the strongest scientific and ethical evidence.

Norway calculated the sustainable yield for its minke whale hunt (the number of whales that could be killed in a given whaling season and replaced by whale reproduction before the next season) using methods developed by the IWC Scientific Committee. Some whale experts believed, however, that the Norwegians failed to make corrections for whales that had been counted more than once and thus overestimated the whale population, which led them to allow an unsustainable harvest. The Norwegian calculation arrived at an estimate of sustainable yield of nearly three hundred minke whales for 1993; critics contended that correct calculations would have indicated a sustainable yield of one minke whale. The inaccuracy of the whale count made it impossible to determine which, if either, yield calculation was correct.

Poor understanding of interactions between the different whale species and their resources further complicated the scientific picture. The Japanese pointed out that, in the Antarctic, the minke whale populations were higher than they were thought to have been before whaling began. They interpreted this as evidence both that minke populations were kept down by competition with other whale species and that high minke populations might slow the recovery of other whales. Skeptics pointed out that evidence for competition between the minke and other whales was not convincing; the minke whale, for example, is known to take more fish and more kinds of crustaceans than the blue whale, suggesting minimal competition between the two. These and many other considerations made the determination of appropriate conservation strategies exceptionally complex.

That determination, however, is simple compared to the moral and ethical questions involved. In the context of any animal conservation, the most basic question is, Do humans have a right to kill other species? Whales are among the most charismatic of organisms. The large size, mysterious lives, haunting songs and calls, large brains, and imputed intelligence of whales have led some people to place them at the pinnacle of the animal world. To these people, the killing of whales is criminal. Studies have suggested, however, that whales’ intelligence is probably not superior to that of many other mammals, given that whales’ brains are not especially large for their bodies (brain size compared to body size is a better measure of intellect than is absolute brain size).

Whales certainly use songs and calls to communicate, but these are probably no more sophisticated than the songs and calls of many other mammals. Presumed demonstrations of whales’ superior emotional and ethical capacities, such as instances of their pushing drowning swimmers to shore, are probably outnumbered by instances in which they were not so helpful and pushed swimmers away from shore. In short, most scientists see whales as no more intellectual or sentient than other mammals. Nevertheless, the conviction that all animals have greater reasoning and emotional capacities than previously believed has continued to grow among scientists and the general public, generating questions about the human right to kill animals.

Even some people who believe that humans do have the right to kill and use animals have questioned the cruelty of whaling. The issue of whether whalers’ means of killing are any more cruel than other hunting methods, or than methods for killing domesticated animals, has been debated extensively. Norway’s defiance of the IWC’s ban on whaling also raised the question of whether humans, with their presumed superior moral and ethical codes, should kill only with demonstrably humane techniques.

Ultimately, the Norwegian position on whaling emphasized the inability of national and international conservation organizations to act on the basis of either scientific evidence or moral-ethical principles. Instead, decisions are often made according to political expediency. Early in its history, the IWC repeatedly acted against strong evidence that whaling harvests were too high to be sustained and set quotas that allowed such harvests. After the shift in public opinion in the 1970’s—and despite evidence that harvests of minke whales, at least in the Antarctic, could be sustained and might even be necessary to allow rapid recovery of other species—the IWC continued to deny whalers access to the resource. A second example bore more directly on the Norwegian situation. The IWC allowed Arctic Natives of North America to hunt the bowhead whale, which was far more endangered than the minke. The reasoning behind the discrepancy, although complex, was essentially political. Certainly, the inconsistency did nothing to advance conservation goals.

At the 1994 meeting of the IWC, most of the world’s oceans south of 40 degrees south latitude were declared a whale sanctuary, off-limits to commercial whaling for at least ten years. This action and the whaling moratorium of 1982 were likely made possible only by the whales’ charisma. Norway’s challenge to the moratorium emphasized how important it was for the IWC to develop a consistent position with regard to regulation of whaling. The controversy also demonstrated that conservation and governmental organizations, national and international, needed to achieve and maintain consistent and effective positions regarding the conservation of resources at all levels and of all types.

In the years since the IWC’s 1994 meeting, pro-whaling forces have grown in the commission and have challenged the moratorium on whaling, which has been preserved by only the barest of majorities. The IWC has granted the expansion of whaling for scientific purposes, and in its 2006 St. Kitts and Nevis Declaration, St. Kitts and Nevis Declaration (2006)[Saint Kitts and Nevis Declaration] the IWC for the first time in many years expressed support for a return to regulated commercial whaling, suggesting erosion of the more conservation-minded bent of earlier decades. Norway, whaling Whaling;international ban

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birnie, Patricia, ed. International Regulation of Whaling: From Conservation of Whaling to Conservation of Whales and Regulation of Whale Watching. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1985. Considers the conversion of the IWC from an organization dedicated to the continuation of whaling to one attempting to ensure the protection of whales. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butterworth, Douglas S. “Science and Sentimentality.” Nature 357 (June 18, 1992): 532-534. Argues the pros and cons of the scientific, as opposed to sentimental, approach to whaling regulation. In May, June, or July of each year (depending on the time of the IWC meetings), this periodical’s “News” section reports on the IWC proceedings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Day, David. The Whale War. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1987. Presents an interesting description of the struggle to save the whales, written from the environmentalist perspective. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman, Milton M. R. “The International Whaling Commission, Small-Type Whaling, and Coming to Terms with Subsistence.” Human Organization 52 (Fall, 1993): 243-251. Thoughtfully compares subsistence whaling, which is allowed by the IWC, and small, traditional whaling operations such as Norway’s, which are not allowed. Includes bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedheim, Robert L., ed. Toward a Sustainable Whaling Regime. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. Collection of essays explores the possibilities for establishing viable international cooperation in the management of whales and whaling.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horwood, Joseph. Biology and Exploitation of the Minke Whale. Boca Raton, Fla.: Chemical Rubber Company Press, 1990. Provides a thorough and well-written description of the minke whale’s biology and the history of its exploitation. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McHugh, J. L. “The Role and History of the International Whaling Commission.” In The Whale Problem: A Status Report, edited by William E. Schevill. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Historically interesting because it was written during the time of transition of the IWC from “whalers’ club” to whale conservation organization. Considers Norway’s pioneering efforts in whaling and in regulating whaling.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacKenzie, Debora. “Whales Win Southern Sanctuary.” New Scientist, June 4, 1994. Report on the 1994 IWC meeting includes an explanation of Norway’s purported calculation error. This general weekly science magazine follows whaling issues, and in May, June, or July each year (depending when the IWC meetings are held), the section titled “This Week” reports on the IWC proceedings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plutte, Will. “The Whaling Imperative: Why Norway Whales.” Oceans, March, 1984, 24-26. Attempts to explain the reluctance of Norwegians to give up whaling. Another article in the issue explores the transformation of the IWC from a whalers’ organization into a whale-conservation organization. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Victor, David G., Kal Raustiala, and Eugene B. Skolnikoff, eds. The Implementation and Effectiveness of International Environmental Commitments: Theory and Practice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. Collection of essays examines how environmental policies are put into practice on an international level. Includes numerous case studies and some discussion of Norway’s whaling regime.

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Categories: History