The decision of Norwegian authorities yesterday (16 January) to defy a global trade ban and allow one company a license to export whale meat has caused waves of international objections amongst member countries of the international moratorium and wildlife action groups. It has also raised fears in the Japanese consumers expected to eat the North Sea minke whale, after a study revealed that levels of toxic POPs in the meat exceeded those currently allowed for human consumption.

Fisheries minister Otto Gregussen's announcement of the new policy was no doubt an attempt by Norway to abruptly close the book on a long-running issue, and the country declared that it was not expecting a large-scale objection because of a technicality. Officially, Norway raised an objection to the CITES, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, and is not legally obliged to abide by a global moratorium on killing whales or trading in their meat. Indeed, the country has actually been hunting minke whales in the North Sea since 1993.

Until now it had refused to issue export licenses, but traders argued that they were struggling because the domestic market for whale products is rather limited in Norway. Consumers eat whale steaks but there is no demand for the blubber, as there is in Japan, where it is a premium product utilised in luxury dishes. The granting of export licenses is therefore a timely solution to the vast stockpiling of whale blubber in the warehouses of northern Norway. It appears authorities were wrong however, to believe that this latest deepening of defiance would mean the end of the argument.

Environmental activists "can just scream and shout"

Norwegian MP and whaling activist, Steinar Bastesen, told newspaper Aftenposten that he was actually expecting Greenpeace and the WWF to object. "But they can just scream and shout," he said, adding that he was off home to celebrate the decision with a whale steak and a glass of red wine.

We're very disappointed

"We're very disappointed in Norway," explained David Caldrey, from the Worldwide Wildlife Fund, "They've restricted themselves in the past from trading purely for diplomatic reasons and I think they are trying to test the water.

Caldrey told just-food.com that the situation is rapidly spiraling out of control. "Norway has been very good on environmental issues, but to do this it just seems unbelievable: it is the thin end of the wedge and could start an international trade of whale meat. Norway says that minke whales are plentiful but even if this is so [no figures actually exist on the population size] Norway has self-awarded quotas in its water."

Unregulated and out of control

"You've got unrestricted whaling on minke whale: it's completely unregulated and completely out of control," he added.

The lack of restrictions on quotas is something that also worries environmental group Greenpeace. Whale campaigner Richard Page explained to just-food.com that "the whalers will clamour and pressure to have their quotas increased. Trading always leads to over-exploitation."

He continued, "Pirate whalers will inevitably take advantage of the cover provided by this trade to smuggle illegal whale meat -from endangered as well as the more abundant species of whale - into Japan. 

"If all countries followed Norway's example with respect to CITES, we would have no international control over the trade in endangered species at all."

Both action groups are concentrating on galvanising the political community, and expect strong objections to be raised by disappointed CITES member countries during The International Whaling Commission, due to be held in London on 23-27 July.

Whale flesh unsafe for human consumption?

Somewhat ironically, other concerns have been raised over whether a viable export market still exists for the Norwegian whalers. A 1998 study by Norwegian scientists uncovered levels of organochlorine contaminants in the blubber of minke whales that far exceeded Japanese regulations, and deemed the whale flesh unsafe for human consumption.

POPs (persistent organic pesticides) build up in the flesh of marine animals, and humans and are highly toxic. Organochlorines have been scientifically identified as the most poisonous examples of these, and the average level found in the mike whale blubber in 1998 ranged from 3.8 to 20.8 parts per million (ppm). The maximum level allowed by Japanese law in produce for human consumption is, meanwhile, only 0.5 ppm.

The obvious discrepancy has caused much concern in Japan and the Safety First campaign is currently mobilised against Norwegian imports.

Whalers pleased with decision

In northern Norway, meanwhile, whalers are oblivious to the international pressure, or even the potential that their export market may not be there. For them, the decision is largely an economic one. The minke whale, which usually weighs in at about three to four tonnes, sells as meat to Japan for around three times the price on the Norwegian market.

"A happy day!" exclaimed whaler Olav Olavsen, explaining that he was hoping to shoot up to 2,000 during the 2001 season; this year should be a killer.

Report referred to is: "Organochlorine contaminants in northeast Atlantic minke whales" Kleivane and Skaare, Environmental Pollution, vol 101 (1998) pages 231-239.